We lucky Welsh fans alive today are in the midst of the first ever ‘Golden Age’ of Welsh football. Coming hard on the heels of qualification for Euro 2016 and Euro 2020, Wales have now won Nations League group B4 following last week’s victories over Ireland (1-0) and Finland (3-1) in Cardiff. This means promotion to the lucrative A leagues for the next Nations League tournament (starting after the Qatar World Cup in 2022) as well as elevation into the top 20 in the world rankings and thus a high seeding and comparatively easier group than usual in the campaign to qualify for Qatar. What’s more, with the best record of all the group winners (16 points from five wins and a draw) Wales are guaranteed a second chance, via play-offs, to reach the promised land of a World Cup finals tournament should the regular group qualification process fail like it has done for the last – talk amongst yourselves while I do the arithmetic – 62 years and counting.
World Cup qualifying doesn’t conclude until after 2021’s postponed Euro 2020 tournament, so we can put that daunting/thrilling prospect on the back burner for now and simply revel in the current completely unprecedented sustained run of success. This is only the second time (Euro 1976 qualifying was the first) that Wales have topped a tournament group and only the second time (after group 3 of the 1958 World Cup finals in Sweden) that Wales have gone through a group undefeated. The two victories, following a 0-0 draw with the USA in a friendly, have continued a most unusual recently acquired habit of rarely losing. It’s been like this for approximately seven years now, ever since Gareth Bale blossomed into a player of authentic international calibre. The Welsh record since the start of 2014 is P61, W29, D15, L17 – a 25% loss rate unmatched in the national side’s entire history. To give two illustrative comparisons, in the previous equivalent total of Welsh matches (between 2007 and 2013) the record was P61, W23, D7, L31, a loss rate above 50%, and in the earliest equivalent total (between 1876 and 1899) the record was P61, W11, D8, L42, a loss rate I don’t care to calculate.
In the seemingly eternal pre-Bale era there was of course the very occasional one-off triumph, but each turned out to be a flash-in-the-pan exception that led nowhere fast and merely proved the rule of our whipping-boy status. No, Wales have never come remotely close to today’s year in, year out consistently good form. Just look at the grim record in the ‘Home Championship’ contested between England, Ireland/Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales between 1884 and 1984, the only tournament Wales played in until entering the 1950 World Cup. There were 87 of these seasonal three-game tournaments in total (five were lost to WW1, seven to WW2 and the 1981 Championship was abandoned due to the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland). Wales managed to win it outright a paltry seven times, in 1907, 1920, 1924, 1928, 1933, 1934 and 1937 (the 1930s were definitely what can now be labelled the Silver Age of Welsh football), compared to England’s 34 outright wins, Scotland’s 24 and Northern Ireland’s three. Wales can claim five shared wins too (in 1939, 1952, 1956, 1960 and 1970) because goal average/goal difference for some reason was never used to separate teams level on points – but applying goal difference retrospectively shows that only the 1952 Championship would have been won by Wales in modern terms. Hmm, that adds up to eight wins in 87 attempts: in a four-horse race that’s pretty awful.
Yes indeed, those bad old days are well and truly over and a glittering, glorious future surely stretches out ahead…and yet, and yet…why do I feel strangely dissatisfied and uneasy?
Maybe because of the empty Cardiff City Stadium. The silence somehow drained the action of its symphonic ebb and flow tempo while the Public Address system played Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, Calon Lan and Men of Harlech on a perpetual loop that eventually debased our grand anthems into irritating theme-park muzak. When a sitcom resorts to using canned laughter you know it’s crap; does football need to be so insecure? I’d prefer to hear the shouting, swearing, exhortations and backchat of the players and coaches, and if there must be synthetic crowd noise why not something counter-intuitive and surprising like, say, old Ninian Park recordings of The Referee’s a Bastard or You’re Going to Get Your Fuckin’ Head Kicked In to provide the missing rootsy authenticity and local colour?
Or maybe it’s because of the enforced absence of manager Ryan Giggs while police investigate accusations of assault and actual bodily harm. Giggs denies the allegations made by his now ex-girlfriend, but whatever happens next this latest episode in his, er, complicated private life has confirmed his status as vicarious fodder for the barrel-scraping tabloids. I couldn’t care less about his (or anyone’s) personal life and I don’t buy all that ‘role model’ bullshit sportspeople have been lumbered with in recent times. All I care about in his case is how he performs as manager of Wales – and he’s been brilliant since he took the job in 2018. Now though, with the domestic abuse case remanded until February, his position is starting to look untenable. The old “when did you last beat your wife?” chestnut is likely to haunt him and no international soccer manager can survive becoming a laughing stock. As I type this, the FAW will be pondering the options. Robert Page, who stood in for Giggs successfully in the November matches, waits in the wings. Oh, Ryan, why are you such a twat?
Or maybe it’s because my enthusiasm for the prospect of Llwynypia-born Page as Wales’ next manager evaporated in the instant he brought Chris Gunter on as a substitute against Finland in the last few seconds of injury time in the 93rd minute. Four subs had already been used (FIFA have temporarily permitted five during the pandemic) and Gunter just had enough time to cross the touchline onto the field of play before the ref blew the final whistle. For that effort Wales’ most capped player was awarded his 99th cap. Thus Page demeaned and rendered farcical the honour and pride implicit in every single Welsh international appearance by every player who ever wore the Welsh shirt, as well as undermined the validity and integrity of records, statistics and Wales’ football history itself. Chris Gunter should tell him he doesn’t want to get to the century in this artificial and crooked way – and unless Robert Page learns quickly that Welsh caps are not meaningless treats to be dished out willy-nilly to garner popularity he is not the man for the job.
Or maybe it’s because elite professional footballers generally have become so unappealing and even repellent; the inevitable result of being obscenely overpaid. Gareth Bale, for instance, like Giggs a multi-millionaire, is reportedly paid £600,000 a week by Tottenham Hotspur, more than most people in Wales will earn in their entire working life. Such preposterously disproportionate quantities of money can only isolate, corrupt and poison any human being, twisting them into over-entitled egotists, gluttonous empire builders or vulgar hyper-consumers. For every Marcus Rashford, admirably using his football fortune to campaign against poverty and fight the thuggish Tory overlords, there are hundreds of other super-rich players who are just selfish, amoral mercenaries with overworked hair-do’s. Call me a hopeless idealist, but I reckon that past and present Welsh international footballers who are already rich beyond the dreams of avarice should be redistributing some of their lucked-out lucre to benefit Wales.
Or maybe it’s because of what’s happening to the game itself. All over the world overcoached teams of clone-like power-athletes robotically produce joyless, stilted and formulaic tedium. This is what has been done to the Beautiful Game during the relentless monetisation and commercialisation of this turbo-Capitalist era: the ‘working class ballet’ has become one more profiteering ‘industry’ dominated by a few voracious, monopolistic, crush-all-opposition super-clubs, the sportswashing cash-cows of oligarchs, plutocrats, megalomaniacs, hedge funds and asset strippers; it has been transformed into the Ugly Game.
The irony does not escape me: all my life I have yearned for Welsh success in international football and now, just as it is really happening at long last, my love of football is dying a slow death. I wonder: is this a case of ‘be careful what you wish for’, or is it just the natural trajectory of every human dream?