After a year-long delay there are only a few days to go before Wales embark on a second consecutive European Championship finals tournament. Acting manager Rob Page has assembled his 26-man squad and they were put through their paces in two friendly internationals last week. The 3-0 defeat in Nice against France can be blamed entirely on the ridiculous referee Luis Godinho of Portugal, the epitome of the puffed-up, pedantic pen-pusher. Having taken an eternity studying video replays from all angles to decide whether Neco Williams had deliberately used his hand or not when a shot was fired into his arms at point-blank range, he wrongly awarded a penalty and compounded the error by sending Williams off. The score was 0-0 at the time and Wales were competing well, but with over an hour still to play with only 10 men against the World Champions the result immediately became a foregone conclusion and the game was reduced to a thorough workout and a chance for those returning from injuries to get nearer match fitness. For the record, Wales’ head-to-head tally against France now stands at P6, W1, D1, L4, Goals F4-A14. Of more interest to a statistics nerd such as moi is the fact that all six of those games have been friendlies and all six took place in France. Yes, Wales and France have never met in tournament football and France have never played football in Wales! The different universes inhabited by Welsh football and Welsh rugby could not be more starkly illustrated, non?
The 0-0 draw with awkward Albania in Cardiff was another useful test, a chance for Page to give more of the squad match practice, and confirmation that big target-man Kieffer Moore has got to be in the starting line-up against Switzerland – if only because it takes two defenders to contain him, so freeing up space for other attackers. The result brought the record against Albania to P4, W1, D2, L1, Goals F3-A2. Most notably, the match marked the return of fans to football in Wales after 18 months (capacity capped at 6,500), allowing the team to receive a rousing farewell before they headed off to Baku and whatever lies ahead.
The scale of the task is put into perspective by Wales’ head-to-head record against our three Group A opponents:
Mind you, Baku is almost home from home for Wales. Due to being regularly drawn in the same qualification group as Azerbaijan, including Euro 2020 qualifying, Wales have played in the Eurasian city four times in the last 19 years and have never lost there – although those matches were not at the huge, recently constructed Olympic Stadium where the Switzerland and Turkey games will be staged. The Group will climax, in what is sure to be a momentous occasion, at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome where Wales have only played once previously – a 4-1 defeat in 1969. Being viewed as minor opposition, Wales have usually not been honoured with an appearance in the capital; Firenze, Brescia, Terni, Bologna and Milano being the locations for the other Welsh games in Italy.
I ululate with excitement, tremble with apprehension and quiver with expectation – and that’s just at the prospect of the torrents of tripe that will pour out of the legions of BBC/ITV presenters, reporters, pundits, commentators and co-commentators! At least the Wales games are also being shown on far superior S4C, where there is some respite from the Anglocentric ‘British’ coverage, plus the bonus that my traditional 90 minute barrage of ferocious, full volume, fulminations ricocheting through the back-streets of Cardiff will be comfortably drowned out by marvellous Malcolm Allen. Of course, I might opt to disappear down to Splott Beach for a couple of hours because I just can’t bear the tension. Depends on my mood on the day.
It is far too much to hope for a repeat of Euro 2016 and I doubt Wales will even proceed to the knock-out phase this time. In the end, the ace up the sleeve of all Wales’ fans is that it doesn’t actually matter. After all the past heartbreaks and disasters, qualifying for a finals tournament is still such a novelty that the mere fact of being there, on the global stage, asserting our existence, expressing our nationhood, is going to be wonderful enough. We’ve got nothing to lose – and that makes us dangerous.