In the aftermath of the Welsh men’s football team getting over that 64-year itch and qualifying for their first World Cup finals since the 1950s, Chris Andrews talks to some of the fanbase – and offers an overview of what’s come before and what could happen next.
It’s a miserable early June night in terms of weather but at the Cardiff City Stadium, the rain was the last thing on people’s minds. A deflected Gareth Bale free kick has left Wales within touching distance of their first World Cup qualification since 1958.
But we’ve been here before. In 1977, Wales had their own ‘hand of God’ incident when the referee missed the ball hitting the arm of Scotland’s Joe Jordan, awarding the Scots a penalty and sending them to the 1978 World Cup at Welsh expense. Fast forward to 1993: if Wales can beat Romania at the old Cardiff Arms Park, they will reach the 1994 tournament in the USA. With the score at 1-1 after an hour, this time it’s Wales who are awarded a penalty. Up steps Swindon Town defender Paul Bodin. As the ball rattles against the bar, Wales qualification hopes are once more dashed at the last hurdle.
So here we are once again on June 5 2022 and even the most ardent Wales supporter must have had the spectres of Jordan and Bodin dancing around in their heads. Goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey is pulling off minor miracles keeping the Ukraine attack out, including an Artem Dovbyk header which looked sure to creep in late on. The Welsh defence is looking tired, but finally, it comes. The referee blows the final whistle; players drop to the ground in tears, interim manager Rob Page pounds his chest proudly, and the crowd goes suitably wild. Wales has done it.
Generations of Welsh fans otherwise too young for such experiences will now get to see their heroes play at the most prestigious tournament in football. For their part, the Ukrainian players are given a round of applause as they leave the pitch, with their Welsh counterparts offering words of encouragement. Given what their country has endured this year, they have given Ukrainian people something to cheer for in these bleak times – in context, all of this still serves as a reminder that this is only a football match.
As Yma O Hyd is belted out by folk singer Dafydd Iwan, players and fans alike, and Ian Rush – a Welsh legend who never graced a World Cup – dances away in the stands, it’s hard to put into words just how monumental of an achievement this. Little old Wales shouldn’t be qualifying for World Cups. We don’t have a squad stuffed with elite Premier League players. But what we do have is a well-organised squad and management, with plenty of passion and heart. Is this all down to the late Gary Speed’s restructuring of Welsh football when he was appointed manager in December 2010?
“I think it began before Gary, with John Toshack blooding so many youngsters,” says Colin Lewis, a prominent Welsh supporter of 38 years’ standing. “Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey etc all were given debuts under Tosh at a very young age.
“Where Gary was important, was that he came in and adopted a more professional approach to how the national team was organised. He identified a Welsh way of playing, from the youth teams right up to the national team, and that is still evident today. Gary’s blueprint has set the tone since.”
Having been a Welsh supporter since 1985 – an undistinguished 3-0 defeat against Hungary, to be precise – travelling home and away with the team and to all corners of the world, often with little to cheer about, what does Colin think this will mean to Welsh fans past, present and future?
“I think for the fans who’ve been there through the dark times of non-qualifications, it’s the final piece of the jigsaw. With all the years of close misses and sometimes downright failures, this is just a glorious achievement and means the world to the core support who’ve never given up believing in the team.”
Lewis, who has not missed a home game since 1989, adds: “For the future of Welsh football this is huge. Younger generations will be inspired by the success and that’s where the future is – from the grassroots up.”
After the exploits of Wales in Euro 2016, where the team shocked the footballing world by reaching the semi-finals, it wasn’t just the players that got noticed. Welsh fans were gaining plaudits and headlines for all of the right reasons – not something guaranteed in international football. So as part of the Welsh travelling contingent, what does Colin put our good reputation down to?
“It’s hard to pinpoint one thing. Our fans are very much ambassadors for Wales and there is a general consensus that everywhere we go, we have a responsibility to show the best possible side of our nation and leave a positive impression of what the people of Wales are like.”
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But there are sections of the Wales fanbase, indeed football supporters in general, who find themselves in a precarious position with the World Cup held in Qatar this year. The country has a less than impressive human rights record: amongst other things homosexuality is illegal, causing some LGBTQ+ supporters to boycott travelling to the World Cup altogether. First Minister Mark Drakeford recently commented in the Senedd that Wales should “not look the other way” from human rights concerns in Qatar. In response to those concerns, football’s equality campaigning body Kick It Out have announced a working group, with the objective of creating a safe and inclusive World Cup for LGBTQ+ supporters.
On the pitch, Wales will be faced with Iran, USA and the old enemy England in Group B: the latter game, in particular, promising a mouthwatering clash. Having not qualified for all these years, should we just be happy to be there, or are fans expecting more? “I don’t think there’s a point in going without the aim being to win it, but to get out of the group would be superb,” Colin answers emphatically.
However, they fare at the World Cup, Rob Page, his staff and all the players can be immensely proud of what they’ve achieved already. They’ve taken Welsh football to the forefront of the global game, inspiring thousands of youngsters to look closer to home for their heroes; in the process achieving the unthinkable and putting football ahead of rugby as the national sport. Most importantly, they’ve done it with a style and integrity all of their own. Da Iawn Cymru!
words CHRIS ANDREWS
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