Two hard-earned 1-1 draws against Slovakia and Croatia last week mean there is still a mathematical possibility that Wales could qualify for Euro 2020 as runners-up in Group E. Put simply, if Wales win both their last two games (away to Azerbaijan and home to Hungary) and if Slovakia lose one of their last two (away to Croatia and home to Azerbaijan) then we’ve done it. However, that’s two too many “ifs” for my liking. Much more feasible, although still very demanding, is the back-door route to qualification via the play-off system newly-introduced by UEFA for this tournament. It’s all fiendishly complicated: the 16 highest-placed teams in the 2018/19 Nations League that don’t qualify through the 10 Groups will enter the play-offs, which consist of semi-finals and finals next March when four will emerge to join the 20 already qualified. And Wales, if I’m understanding UEFA’s byzantine variables and coefficients correctly, are currently one of those 16. Oh dear, this campaign is showing all the hallmarks of becoming yet another grinding, painful endurance test…
The exciting draw in front of a capacity crowd in Trnava was achieved with a mere 30% possession. Slovakia, ranked 29th in the world, were far more comfortable on the ball, mainly because at least half the Welsh team simply don’t have the international quality first touch that brings the ball under instant control and retains possession. Notwithstanding the emphatic header he dispatched to put Wales ahead and notch his first international goal, striker Kieffer Moore is among those who are only playing at this level because Welsh professional footballers are scarcer than hen’s teeth. Unable to compete with Slovakian technique, Ryan Giggs had no option other than resort to the underdogs’ time-worn tactic: hit it long to the big awkward bloke up front. And it worked. Moore may have the acceleration of a tortoise and the touch of a herd of wildebeeste, but he’s an authentic aerial menace and might well win more Welsh caps whenever Giggs judges ‘Route One’ to be the only way to get a result (i.e. every game for the foreseeable future). Who knows, he could develop in the role and eventually join the pantheon of distinguished Welsh giraffes of the past like Trevor Ford (1923-2003), John Charles (1931-2004), Ron Davies (1942-2013), Wyn Davies, John Toshack and John Hartson. The head-to-head against Slovakia now reads P5, W3, D1, L1, Goals F10-A9. If this pattern persists Slovakia will come to see Wales as something of an albatross, he added to bring the animal references in this paragraph up to five for no particular reason.
I managed to watch most of the Slovakia game as it happened on S4C, which is unusual for me these days as I increasingly mutate into a delicate snowflake unable to withstand the slightest stress. I made an effort to do the same thing with the Croatia match in Cardiff three days later, but as soon as Nikola Vlašić scored with a ragged shot in the 9th minute following poor defending by Connor Roberts, I turned the TV off and retired to the kitchen to roll a massive joint and do some avoidance-strategy baking (apple crumble if you must know). There I happily pottered in blissful ignorance of what was going on 1½ miles away and calmly resigned myself to something like a 0-3 defeat. But I kept the back door open, facing due west into the prevailing air-flow, and when the distant moan and hiss of the Cardiff night was suddenly broken by a swelling rumble rolling across the city from the west I knew immediately that Wales had equalised. The absence of any similar soundwaves until the match was over meant I was pretty certain Wales had drawn. Hey! I’ve discovered a great new way to experience soccer! By vibes alone! Only later after I’d absorbed the ramifications of the result (and devoured a big bowl of apple crumble with extra-thick cream) did I watch the highlights on my phone: Gareth Bale’s superb goal, which increased his all-time record tally to 33, a case-study in the centrality of one-touch control if ever there was one; and the technically masterful but thuggish Croats’ strongarm approach. Thank heavens I didn’t see it live or else I would certainly have had one of my funny turns! Wales’ terrible head-to-head record against the 2018 World Cup finalists has been marginally improved by this draw, reducing the loss rate to 66%: P6, W0, D2, L4, Goals F4-A10.
Following a football match from the roars and groans of the crowd is actually nothing new for anyone who has lived close to a football ground. I regularly experienced the primal thrill during my London years when I lived about a mile north of Stamford Bridge. Whenever Chelsea played at home the great guttural explosion of 40,000 blokes yelling in unison would funnel northwards up the cutting of the 1844 West London Railway (previously the basin of the Kensington Canal and originally the valley of Counter’s Creek, one of London’s lost rivers) and rattle the sash windows of my attic flat near Kensington Olympia. Then, as now, I couldn’t stand Chelsea – even though compared to today’s hyper-monetised, Russian oligarch’s bauble the Chelsea FC of the 1970s was positively adorable. But, being a football lover above all, saturated in the sport’s vast global narrative, I appreciated Chelsea’s rich history and all the great players who would have generated that same roar, from George Hilsdon (1885-1941) to George Mills (1908-1978), Hughie Gallacher (1903-1957) to Roy Bentley (1924-2018), Jimmy Greaves to Peter Osgood (1947-2006). The roar of the Chelsea crowd comforted and reassured, it asserted that there is such a thing as society, it connected me to the past and the future, and it hinted at the collective power of people en masse. It will be a good sign if I hear a lot more similar Welsh roars reverberating across Cardiff next month.