‘Crazy journey’: How Wales went from worse than Haiti to World Cup hero | Wales

‘Crazy journey’: How Wales went from worse than Haiti to World Cup hero | Wales

Eeleven years ago, Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Wayne Hennessey left the pitch at the Cardiff City Stadium after a 2-1 friendly loss by Australia in front of a crowd of 6,373, some of whom resorted to sarcastic cheers. On the face of it, it wasn’t the worst result, but it was a seventh defeat in eight and, more relevantly, it plunged the team to a record 117th in the Fifa rankings, sandwiched between Haiti and Grenada. If it was an unedifying sight for the supporters to see Wales slipping under Guatemala, the Faroe Islands and Mozambique, it should do qualify for a first World Cup for 64 years all the more satisfying, if not surreal.

Bale was captain Wales in what he called the country’s greatest ever result against Ukraine, Ramsey went the distance in midfield and Hennessey, 35, who made two Premier League starts for relegated Burnley in the 2021 season- 22, made nine saves – with arguably the best saved for last to deny Artem Dovbyk – in difficult conditions. It was only fitting that Bale and Hennessey, who have been inseparable since playing together for the Wales Under-21s and will continue their journey to the biggest stage in November, share the moment, which Robert Page dedicated to the late Gary Speed, who was nine years old. months of work in August 2011.

These senior Wales players, along with Joe Allen and Chris Gunter, the first Welshman to win a century of caps, have, in Bale’s words, found the last piece of the puzzle. Page said Wales were reaping the rewards of the professionalism and identity instilled by Speed, who were aiming to reach the 2014 World Cup after taking over from John Toshack. “Gary’s words and his plan were all based on getting a World Cup,” says former Wales midfielder Owain Tudur Jones, an unused substitute that day against Australia.

“He had so many goals he wanted to achieve, both short and long term. It took a little longer than expected, but it’s almost like the wait made him feel so much better. It’s a nice thing that there are still players involved in the team who would have been in those meetings with Tosh originally and certainly with Gary. These players have carried him in their hearts since his death. »

It’s no surprise that Hennessey and Bale, four-ball golf partners, roommates and chief pranksters, teamed up long after the final whistle to put the scale of their achievement into words, with Bale particularly enthusiastic in his praise for Hennessey, describing his display as “the best I have ever seen by a goalkeeper”.

“It’s been a crazy journey from where we needed to qualify for two European Championships and a world CupBale says. “It’s literally what dreams are made of, especially for all of us who have been there from the start. We have also paved the way for young people, we have welcomed them and it is difficult to describe what this means to us. We always fight for each other.

Wayne Hennessey makes one of many saves against Ukraine.
Wayne Hennessey makes one of many saves against Ukraine. Photograph: David Davies/PA

Page believes football has overtaken rugby as the national sport. “When I was growing up in Tylorstown playing rugby was the thing to do, not football, but I think the tide has turned now and I think football has become our No.1 sport,” says Page, who, like Jimmy Murphy, who led Wales to the quarter-finals of the 1958 World Cup, grew up in the Rhondda Valley.

“We’ll always be known for rugby, of course, but it’s huge, it’s monumental what we’ve done in qualifying for a World Cup. People like Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey, those senior players, will come in in history.

Wales put aside their sympathy for Ukraine for almost 98 minutes to reach a second successive major tournament. They are 19 games unbeaten at Cardiff and since their last home defeat, to Denmark in November 2018, when Paul Dummett was left-back and Tom Lawrence on the left wing, they have conceded seven goals and kept 12 clean sheets at residence. Their spirit seems unbreakable.

“This unity that Wales now has was what we have always envied,” says Tudur Jones. “We were going to places like Montenegro, a new nation and a good team, but you looked at them and said, ‘How are they better than us? On paper, we have better players. I think that’ was the goal back then, to get that mentality that we see now. It doesn’t matter what level they play or if they play regularly; collectively we are better than what people expect us to be It took a little while, but that’s what Tosh wanted, that’s what Gary saw and thought possible and now we see they were perfect.

Gareth Bale in action for Wales against Australia in the 2011 defeat.
Gareth Bale in action for Wales against Australia in the 2011 defeat. Photography: Matthew Childs/Action Images/Reuters

Neville Southall, Hennessey’s goalkeeper hero who grew up in Anglesey, predicted a baby boom following qualification. Giant billboards outside Cardiff City Stadium advertise the ‘timeless charm’ of Vietnam and the sandy beaches of Malaysia, the home of Championship club owner Vincent Tan, but there is only one only destination on the lips of those who speak Welsh. some blood. Most of the Wales squad partied into the early hours of Monday at Elevens bar in the city center, which is owned by Bale, who is teetotal. They sang on Shakira’s Waka Waka, the official song of the World Cup in 2010, reworking the chorus to: “We are going to Qatar”.

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