After losing 2-1 to Belgium in Brussels and 0-1 to Poland in Cardiff, Wales finished bottom of Nations League Group A4 and will be playing in the B Leagues when the biennial tournament kicks off again in 2024-25. If Cymru were not going to the World Cup in November this might have mattered to me and I might now be ranting and raving about things like Matthew Smith’s unsatisfactory distribution or Aaron Ramsey’s endless catalogue of injuries, but as we will be one of the 32 nations in Qatar at the 22nd staging of football’s spectacular showpiece, who cares? After all, when you’ve been waiting 64 years for a few morsels of gateau to fall from the top table the confiscation of a teaspoon of gnat’s piss is neither here nor there, he said straining unsuccessfully for a pertinent analogy…
I don’t intend to go into any detail about the two matches. As the last fixtures before Wales’ opening Group B game in Al Rayyan against the USA on November 21st, they were quite rightly used by manager Rob Page to scrutinise as many players as possible before he decides firstly who will be in his provisional squad list of 55 (increased from 35 at the last World Cup in 2018) and then who will make the final 26-man squad (increased from 23 in 2018). Missing, for various reasons, were squad certainties Joe Allen, Ethan Ampadu, Ben Davies, Chris Mepham and Harry Wilson, meaning Page had to really test Wales’ strength in depth against classy Belgium and Poland – both will also be in Qatar – and, all things considered, the overall performances were ok. Page has deservedly been awarded a new four-year contract by the FAW, taking in Euro 2024 and World Cup 2026 qualifying, so he can afford to look beyond Qatar at future prospects and potential.
Statistically speaking, the record against Belgium is now P17, W5, D5, L7, Goals F24-A24 and against Poland P10, W1, D2, L7, Goals F6-A13. In terms of sequences, Wales are now winless in five games – ever since that Ukraine triumph. Gareth Bale, who came on as a sub against Belgium and played the full 90 minutes against Poland, has taken his caps total to 108 while goalie Wayne Hennessey, who played in both games, has reached 106 – both are closing in on Chris Gunter’s record of 109. Gunter was an unused sub and, given that his playing days are coming to an end and he’s currently turning out for Wimbledon in England’s 4th tier, it seems likely he will not be on the proverbial plane to Qatar and, assuming they’re not injured in the meanwhile, Bale definitely and Hennessey probably should top his record at the World Cup.
I will just add a couple of final remarks pertaining to these two games. Belgium’s star man Kevin de Bruyne, who scored with a delectable instinctive volley in Brussels, says he is “bored” playing against Wales (there have been four meetings in the last 18 months). I’ve got news for Manchester City’s multi-millionaire midfielder: only the boring ever get bored. C’mon Canada! And Poland’s rude, thuggish, far-right supporters were the worst seen in Wales for many a year. C’mon Mexico!!
There is one important point to make about the World Cup squad. As things stand, it seems likely that Wales will be the only country of the 32 in Qatar without a single player selected from its domestic leagues. This is not just embarrassing and humiliating; it is stupid and dangerous. Over the decades many countries around the world, and many anti-Wales voices within the UK, have questioned the legitimacy of Wales having international football status at all. If Wales pander to the notion that actually we are not a real country at all but just an appendage of England, and pick a squad exclusively from the English leagues, nearly all developed by English clubs and many born in England and only qualifying as Welsh through ancestry to boot, then we are asking for trouble. This is our first appearance on the world stage for 64 years, the first time ever we have come to global attention, the highest profile the nation of Wales has ever had. We should be very wary of giving ammunition to our enemies. Given the enlarged squads allowed in Qatar and given that Wales by no stretch of the imagination can seriously hope to win the World Cup, it can do absolutely no harm at all, and much good, to select at least one player from Welsh domestic football. It will certainly protect our precious international soccer status. I urge the FAW and its highly intelligent and forward-thinking Chief Executive, Irishman Noel Mooney, to instruct Rob Page that he must include some footballers from our own Cymru Leagues in the 55-strong provisional squad and at least one in the final squad. Here are some off-the-cuff suggestions, none of whom would ever let Cymru down and all of whom have at least as much to offer as any MK Dons or Wimbledon reserve:
■Ben Clark (TNS)
■Gwion Dafydd (TNS)
■Danny Davies (TNS)
■Mael Davies (Penybont)
That’s enough about football here for a month or so – look out for full coverage and special features when the World Cup kicks off.