World Cup Showdown in Cardiff


And so the final UEFA nation to play in the FIFA World Cup 2022 will be decided today.

Wales, who have not graced the finals since 1958, when they reached the quarter-finals, welcome Ukraine, conquerors of Scotland, who have a global wave of well-wishers and a well of emotion behind them.

The Scots lost 1-3 at home on Wednesday to Ukraine despite having the noisy backing of their home crowd and knowledge their famous fan army had not been to the World Cup Finals since France '98. What was remarkable was how the visitors, with their own nation's well-documented travails, coolly dispatched them.

The Welsh face the same test today. Wales has a whale of a time at Euro 2016, reaching the last four in their first finals appearance since the 1950s, and followed it up with a second-round finish at Euro 2020. But the World Cup is the big one we all dream of.

Scotland pipped Wales in 1977 and '85 and an agonizing home loss at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium to Romania in 1993 meant the principality missed out again at the last hurdle.

Gareth Bale.
Gareth Bale has yet to play in a World Cup finals

John Charles, the outstanding Welsh player of the post-war period, got to play at the 1958 World Cup but Ian Rush and Ryan Giggs never did and now Gareth Bale has 90 minutes to break the spell.

Despite home advantage and being ranked higher than Ukraine in the world (18th v 27th) the dragons come to the Cardiff City stadium, a happy hunting ground for them in general, with a few seeds of doubt. 

On the same night as Ukraine dismissed the Scottish claim to Qatar, Wales lost 2-1 in the Nations League in Poland. More significantly, the visitors have an invisible 12th man following off-field tragedy, as Denmark did at the Euros.

After the initial shock of coping with the psychological weight of watching their country being invaded, the Ukrainian national team players, who have been together for a month now, have now turned the suffering to their advantage. 

Ukraine is united by football

"Our team write to soldiers and received a flag from the war which they promised to hang in the dressing room," Ukraine manager Oleksandr Petrokov said in Cardiff yesterday.

"These are great emotions for our nation," added midfielder Taras Stepanenko.

Wales, like Scotland therefore, could be in a no-win situation. The Welsh players will try their hardest as professionals, as men who as boys grew up dreaming of the biggest stage, and are well-versed in their little country's historic failure to make the finals. Qualification would be a great advertisement for and a financial boon to Welsh football.

There is a lot at stake for both sides.

But one suspects Ukraine have the edge because of their unique circumstances. West Ham striker Andriy Yarmolenko said back in March after scoring, "It's so difficult for me in this moment thinking about football because every day in my country the Russian army kills Ukrainian people."

Fast forward to June and Ukraine midfielder Ruslan Malinovskiy told reporters, "When I'm on the pitch I don't think about the war. I just relax and concentrate on my job and what I need to do on the pitch."

Memories are stirred of Liverpool's first match following the Hillsborough tragedy in 1989 when they tore Nottingham Forest apart in their delayed F.A. semi-final.

"We had to beat Forest as a tribute to those who had lost their lives," striker John Aldridge recalled. "This was a game we had to win at all costs. It was so much more than a football match to me and to everyone else in that Liverpool dressing room. The sense of relief was amazing, the feeling incredible."

It will be a game of high emotion in Cardiff today, tears of joy and sadness, and hugs of solidarity -  just the sort of thing football does best.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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