Famous Belgians, industrious Mexicans and bouncing Czechs

Three international matches in a week! I’m knackered!

Wales’ 19th World Cup campaign began with a 3-1 defeat in UEFA qualification Group E against Belgium in Leuven – the first game Wales have ever played in Flanders. The Red Devils currently have a superb side that has occupied top position in the FIFA World Rankings for over a year, so my expectations were zero as I tuned in to the S4C coverage – especially with David Brooks, Ben Davies and Aaron Ramsey missing injured, not to mention the continued absence of manager Ryan Giggs and the unsettling recent departure of Jonathan Ford as FAW chief executive. Those expectations quickly became sub-zero when Joe Allen, back in the team after serious injury, limped off in the 8th minute. But suddenly Harry Wilson steered home a lovely 10th minute goal after Gareth Bale cut open the Belgian defence with a classy double interchange and I found myself standing in the middle of the room with my arms outstretched bellowing hysterically, in the manner of football commentators on Brazilian TV: GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOL!!! (repeated ad infinitum). Shortly afterwards Kevin De Bruyne smacked in an equaliser (which keeper Danny Ward should have saved) and I immediately turned off the TV and disappeared to read a book (Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion, if you must know). After the match was over I checked the score to confirm that my World Cup dream had been shattered for the 16th consecutive time then had a cup of valerian root herbal tea and went to bed. The head-to-head record against Belgium now stands at P14, W5, D3, L6, Goals F21-A20.

In Cardiff three days later Wales surprisingly won 1-0 against Mexico, 9th in the FIFA rankings. This was a first win against the Central American giants at the 5th attempt, dating back to the inaugural meeting at the 1958 World Cup Finals in Sweden, bringing the head-to-head record to P5, W1, D2, L2, Goals F3-A5. Peculiarly, it was Mexico’s first ever game in Wales – the other four matches having taken place in Stockholm, Mexico City, East Rutherford (USA) and Pasadena (USA). Acting manager Rob Page essentially fielded a second XI, not wishing to risk key players in a friendly when a more important match was imminent. This allowed Chris Gunter to win his 100th cap and become the first Welshman to reach that landmark. It was a brave defensive display against the slick, tough Mexicans – not that I watched the game, since I considered defeat inevitable; I’m just regurgitating hackneyed soccer stereotypes. However I did watch three minutes of highlights on YouTube later and thoroughly enjoyed the gentle subtlety of Kieffer Moore’s amusing winning goal. Thank the Lord his mother’s father hailed from Llanrug is all I can say!

Next came a do-or-die World Cup qualifier in Cardiff against Czechia (a handy shorter version of ‘Czech Republic’). Knowing my limitations, nothing could have induced me to watch this one. And again my policy paid off with a fantastic 1-0 win for Wales against the tough, slick Czechs (head-to-head now P4, W1, D2, L1, Goals F2-A2). What a header by diminutive Dan James! What a cross by brilliant Bale-o! And what a well-aimed, well-deserved elbow! Hey, instead of the usual catarrh, winter 2022 could feasibly bring Qatar…