Yes, Andorra are 199th out of 208 in the world rankings while Wales are 41st; yes, since joining FIFA in 1996 they have won just one competitive fixture; yes, their players are part-timers; yes, the peculiar landlocked micro-state in the Pyrenees is the size of Neath Port Talbot and has the population of Denbighshire; and yes, Wales were insipid, sluggish and clueless – but the pitch was like loose bark chippings mixed with soot, the referee was blatantly biased, and Andorra were dirty, cynical and destructive, so a winning start away from home in the 2016 European Championships qualifying campaign is actually a decent achievement, especially when put into the context of decade upon decade of depressing defeats by sides not that much better than Andorra.
As I’m somebody who always expects the worst (then I never have to suffer disappointment), I’m therefore perfectly content with the win in Andorra la Vella, the Andorran capital. I look at it this way: we’re joint top of Group B with Cyprus following their shock win in Bosnia (we would be alphabetically top too if only we called ourselves Cymru) and, as I have frequently discovered in the Cardiff Pool League, it’s hard to win against any opponent in any sport – even if she’s a heavily pregnant 19 year-old with learning difficulties from Llanrumney who can’t even bend over to line up a shot.
Mind you, when Andorra scored a soft 6th minute penalty to go 1-0 up, awarded in error by a fifth official stood behind the goal following clumsy body language by the awkward, disengaged Neil Taylor, I wasn’t feeling quite so upbeat. I stormed out of the Wharf pub (it’s got Sky, which more or less owns the FAW) and sat in the beer garden overlooking Atlantic Wharf for the rest of the first half, thinking dark thoughts as I watched a fat harvest moon climb above the Castle Works alongside the old Bute East Dock. Here I could safely avoid any tell-tale cheers/groans coming from the pub, all other sounds being well and truly drowned out by the clanking, hissing Works and the ceaseless wailing and gnashing of traffic on the Central Link bouncing off the blue steel walls and back across the viscous, oily waters.
By the time I went back in, the Most Expensive Footballer In The World had equalised (an old strategy of mine: bringing about a goal by not watching) and the second half had started. This I endured in its entirety with extreme difficulty. The minutes ticked away much too quickly. Apart from Bale, Wales were unthreatening and apathetic, not helped by Chris Coleman’s trademark timid, defensive tactics. Just as it looked like this was going to be the greatest result in the 18-year history of Andorran football and the most humiliating in the 138-year history of Welsh football (which would be saying something), up stepped you-know-who to crack home a beautiful bending free kick with his peerless left foot and the win was secured.
To call Wales a one-man band would be to understate our total reliance on Bale. Without him we would almost certainly have lost in Andorra, few of the other players being good enough for international football. As well as Neil Taylor, who in any case should never again have been selected for Wales after playing for team GB in the Olympics, the following are also out of their depth: goalie Wayne Hennessey, an accident waiting to happen infecting his defence with nervousness; defender James Chester, seemingly unwilling to put his body on the line for Wales like he does for Hull City, unsurprisingly since it was only a few months ago that the FAW persuaded him to wear the Welsh flag of convenience via his Rhyl-born mother; captain Ashley Williams, another shipped-in artificial Welshman who has had more than enough chances to reproduce his club form for Wales but never does; midfielder Andy King, ditto; and striker Simon Church, who might have trouble making the Andorra starting XI. Of course, the problem is that Coleman has virtually no alternatives – simply because Wales leaves player development to the random chance an English club might unearth and develop somebody now and then, fingers crossed. When that strategy fails, as it increasingly has done since England turned its back on the ‘home nations’ and began shopping globally for footballers, the FAW is reduced to trawling old census returns to find someone with a Welsh nan who no other country has yet claimed. The emergence of Bale, a once in a generation freak of brilliance, is actually in the long run paradoxically bad for Welsh football, because his exceptional ability allows the FAW and all the apologists for the disastrous status quo, to get away with claiming everything is fine for a while longer. Gareth Bale is proving a very convenient smoke screen behind which the appalling realities of Welsh football can be concealed.
Inevitably, given that Wales is a football-mad country, we have always produced the occasional world-class player, most notably Billy Meredith (1874-1958), Jack Kelsey (1929-1992), Ivor Allchurch (1929-1997), John Charles (1931-2004), Ian Rush and Ryan Giggs. But none of them could defy a Golden Rule of this ultimate team game and win matches single-handedly – whereas Bale can; he’s that good. With Bale in the side anyone is beatable and this means that, even though we have a weak, threadbare squad and the Andorra performance bodes ill for the tougher challenges ahead, Wales have a real chance of qualifying for the 2016 finals in France – particularly since UEFA has expanded the tournament so that 24 rather than 16 will qualify. We only have to finish above any four out of Andorra, Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cyprus and Israel to reach a finals tournament for the first time in 58 years. For once, because of Bale, this isn’t just a preposterous pipe-dream.
However, there is a minefield to negotiate first. Will UEFA punish Wales with a points deduction for the innocuous and innocently joyful brief pitch invasion by Welsh fans following Bale’s winner? Will Real Madrid allow their prize asset to play for Wales in every match? Will he stay free of injury? Will Chris Coleman grow into the job and stop being so conservative and cowed and conventional? And, most crucially, will we get lucky for once? We all know the answer to that last one…