Wales failed to secure their place at Euro 2016 on Sunday after drawing 0-0 at home with Israel. While wasteful first-half finishing and dogged Israeli defending thwarted them this time, a trip to Bosnia and a home tie with Andorra, who have lost their last 52 competitive matches, should yield more than the one point they need to make it to their first major tournament since 1958. How did they pull this off?
Much attention is focused on Gareth Bale, Wales’ Galactico spearhead. This is understandable, given he remains the world’s most expensive footballer until Real Madrid or PSG decide to pay a fee somewhere in the region of the GDP of Hungary for the next anointed one.
Bale’s on-pitch contribution is impossible to ignore; his six goals this campaign are directly responsible for Wales garnering seven points, and he has also provided assists for two of the other three goals Wales have scored in Group B, leading to widespread groupthink that Wales over-rely on him. Maybe so, but the defence, marshalled by Swansea and national captain Ashley Williams, has kept six clean sheets to backstop Bale’s deeds at the sharp end.
The temptation to see Wales as simply Bale, Williams and Aaron Ramsey plus eight others over-simplifies their achievements. Wales are not strangers to teams that contain great players. Ian Rush, Mark Hughes, Ryan Giggs and the late Gary Speed have failed to qualify for major tournaments; the near misses in qualifying for the 1994 World Cup and Euro 2004 were relative oases in a desert of dreadful qualifying campaigns.
It is undeniable that Wales have got a good draw. Their strongest opponents are Belgium, who are shaping up to be one of the most overrated international teams of recent times on the basis of their 2014 World Cup showing and their laboured qualifying campaign. However, to solely focus on this, or Bale, would also not get close to explaining Welsh success alone.
This resurgence is not an overnight occurrence. Chris Coleman is continuing Speed’s work as manager. Speed’s short time in charge saw them move from 117th to 45th in the Fifa rankings after winning the last five games of his 10 in charge in a row. While Coleman had a sticky beginning to his reign, entirely understandable given the circumstances under which he was appointed, the solidity of the team he has built is testament to his organisational abilities and his ability to cajole the best from his most potent weapons.
Another smart move Wales have made is to bring their fans into play as much as possible. Moving fixtures to the Cardiff City Stadium from the cavernous Millenium Stadium has given the team a better noise incubator to play in, and its smaller capacity means that closed sections of the ground and fans rattling around are no longer issues.
The Welsh FA’s decision to listen to fan requests has also shown that they are interested in fostering unity. Their agreement to a fan request to play Euro techno anthem Zombie Nation by Kernkraft 400 before the qualifier against Belgium (the travelling Wales fans picked up the chant at the corresponding fixture in Brussels) in June resulted in a mass chant-a-long, helping to create a spine-tingling atmosphere that is all too rare in modern football. While Sunday’s crowd was not quite as noisy as they were against Belgium, the fans still always felt involved in a way that England’s never seem to be when they play at Wembley.
Coleman said post-match that a by-product of Wales’ new position of ninth in the Fifa rankings is that more teams would come to Cardiff looking to shackle them, and that they would have to find a way to deal with that. It is a problem he welcomes doubtlessly and will look to leave a mark in France next summer by casting his team as dangerous outsiders who can threaten the main players on the day.
Do you think Wales’ qualification is now a formality, or can the unthinkable still happen?
Where would you put Wales’ incredible qualifying campaign down to, and how do you think they will fare in France?
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