IIt was Gareth Bale. If it was Wales, it would still be Bale. He may have only played 22 minutes of football in the 10 weeks since the playoff semi-final win over Austria, he may not be able to last a full game, he may -to have in fact become a former player until Real Madrid. are affected, but he is still the player who makes Wales more than just a mid-table team.
There will be those with their subjective preferences for John Charles or Ryan Giggs, Ivor Allchurch or Ian Rush, but what can be said now is that no one has ever achieved more in a Wales shirt. . It’s not just that he inspired them to reach the European Championship semi-finals and secure their first World Cup qualification in 64 years, it’s that he achieved those feats at six years apart. There are leftovers, but it’s obviously a different side to Chris Coleman and Bale was key for both.
When Bale lined up a free-kick 11 minutes before half-time, things inevitably returned to the free-kick he swept in the same goal against Austria in March. This time, on the other side of the field, Bale stood on the tee and assessed the conditions: 25 yards, light breeze from left to right, heavy rain. He picked his club, took a look at the target and the wall that stood in the way, performed his pre-shot routine, gathered his momentum and then celebrated Andriy Yarmolenko’s dive who deflected the ball in front of his own goalkeeper – which, admittedly, rarely happens in golf.
Bale is a player these days who stars in snippets. He doesn’t dominate games like he used to. He’s 32, and while his lack of regular football could possibly prolong his career – if he so chooses – it also means a lack of basic match fitness. Yet somehow the game still revolves around him, as if Bale’s idea was enough to exert a gravitational pull. And every once in a while, he’ll snatch a ball through the air with an outstretched foot or discover an angle no one else has seen to renew the strength of that idea.
But it wasn’t all about Bale. It was also about the athleticism of Wayne Hennessey and his handling in the rain, the diligence of Neco Williams at left-back, Joe Allen and Dan James relentlessly rushing through midfield and a dozen bodies thrown in the path of the shots.
And it was also about singing. What an asset does Wales have in its choral tradition. As soon as things get tense, they can just flip through the hymnal and start singing something soulful and melodic, an inspiration for those on the pitch and a distraction for those who aren’t. And that is perhaps part of what makes Welsh football so enjoyable right now, for fans and players alike. There’s a feeling of unity, of climbing new heights together, which is extremely exciting.
As before the victory against Austria in the semi-finals of the Wales playoffs, Dafydd Iwan, the grandson of one of the founders of Plaid Cymru, interpreted Yma o Hyd (“Still Here”). His song is about the defiant spirit of Welsh identity and how it remains strong even after almost half a millennium of union with England, but Ukrainian fans may have also found a resonance in his words: “We are always here, despite everything and everyone”.
And there, we come up directly against the awkwardness of the occasion. How can the result of a football match compare with the news about the counter-attack in Sievierodonetsk? How can these things occupy the heads and hearts of the same people at the same time? And yet they do. Football is trivial and yet it matters, as an escape, yes, but also as something more, as a symbol of, well, all it has to be.
Ukrainian fans, who seemed determined to enjoy every second of being Ukrainian in a public space, waved flags throughout Iwan’s performance; united in a common self-affirmation. Surely that’s what fans want, what football is, rather than the corporate nonsense of a Camila Cabello gig seemingly designed for those who are there less for the game and more for the show. The Ukrainian fans were called back at the final whistle, both by the Welsh players who applauded them, and by the Welsh fans who joined in their thunderclap: moving gestures that should not be forgotten.
Popular sentiment may have been behind Ukraine, but that shouldn’t detract from the Welsh cheer. They waited a long time for this. They endured Joe Jordan’s handball, Davie Cooper’s penalty, Paul Bodin’s miss.
That these moments feel like obstacles that have been overcome rather than part of an inevitable and continuing curse is a measure of what Bale and his team have achieved.