It’s been a busy period in World Cup qualifying.
WALES 2 SCOTLAND 1
Any sort of a win against Scotland, our oldest and most regular opponent in international football, is gratifying. The very first Wales match in 1876 was against Scotland (a 4-0 defeat at Hamilton Crescent, Glasgow) and, following the World Cup qualifier in Cardiff last week, we have now played them 106 times, five more meetings than with our next most frequent adversary (England). The victory makes the overall record 22 wins, 23 draws, 61 defeats, goals for 122, goals against 238. That poor record used to be much worse: we have won 5 of the last 7 against Scotland, our best sequence since the fixture began, to make the stats a bit more respectable. These recent successes tell us nothing about the Welsh game and everything about the dire state of Scottish football. If a club with Rangers’ overwhelming might within Scotland can go bust, to be reformed at level 4, we can be certain the Scottish domestic structure, and therefore the production of players for the international team, is in crisis. All I can say to console my Scottish friends is this: welcome to our world.
In Wales we’ve got a football pyramid of such unique dysfunctionality that it makes the Scottish League look a picture of health. Rangers’ plight is nothing compared to the regular collapses of once-mighty clubs in Wales. Inaugural 1993 WPL champions Cwmbrân Town, the only Welsh club to have played in all four European club competitions (EC, ECWC, I-Toto, UEFA/Europa), currently languish at regionalised level 5 (Gwent County League), the Welsh equivalent of the South of Scotland League; record six-time WPL champions Barry Town are kept alive by a fans’ committee at level 2 south; twice champions Rhyl strain at the leash at level 2 north; and regular European qualifiers Ebbw Vale and Neath no longer exist. Had such carnage occurred in any other national league, it would have triggered soul-searching recriminations; here it gets a resigned shrug, if it’s noticed at all. And, uniquely in a global game built on profligacy and debt, Welsh clubs don’t go bust chasing rainbows with inflated wages, exhorbitant transfer fees and vanity projects like, say, Rangers – here, they go bust because they can’t pay the Leccy bill.
The game itself, a must-win for both sides, had been billed as the (yawn) “Battle of Britain” in the London media. Predictably, it was more like the Sais/Sassenach Scuffle: much huffing and puffing trying to rectify general inadequacy. The ‘end-to-end stuff’ kept the near-capacity crowd excited, but only illustrated how being straightjacketed into lumpen “British football” has left both Celtic countries far adrift of the modern game’s high techniques. In the end, the only world-class player on the pitch, Southampton product Gareth Bale, made the difference. If I were the kind of writer who has to end every paragraph with a lame play on words, I’d say we were saved by the Bale.
CROATIA 2 WALES 0
I really fancied a trip to Brazil in 2014. Think of it…a World Cup in the steepling arenas of the greatest footballing nation; a World Cup staged in the nation that broke our hearts the only time we did make it, back in the 1958 quarter-final when a 17 year-old Pele scored his first World Cup goal; a World Cup in the spiritual home of the Beautiful Game…that would be the World Cup to qualify for, the one I’ve waited all these decades to go to. Ahh…so often I imagined it…us Cymry en masse, flying down to Rio with an invite to the ultimate party; Wales, for once, joining in the carnival, not left out in the cold; the Draig Goch seen across the planet for the first time ever; the atmosphere; the tropical temperatures; the rainforest; the coffee; the cachaça; the ladyboys giving blowjobs on Copacabana Beach…
But it’s not to be. In Osijek, Croatia, 116 years younger than Wales as a football nation, looked effortlessly superior in all departments. Only Bale would get into their side. The possession stats say it all: Wales had just 24% of the ball, a record low since such stats were kept.
Over the last year I had managed to break the habit of a lifetime and save a little money for Brazil 2014, painstakingly building up £100 towards my trip of a lifetime. So it’s not all bad news: I’ve been drinking it away all week.