October 5, 2022

The final European World Cup qualifier has been played: Wales secured their place in Qatar after beating Ukraine 1-0. Their opponents wave a graceful goodbye, having competed with rare composure and dignity. Ukraine deployed its efforts against the backdrop of a horrific invasion by the forces of Russian President Vladimir Putin. So it was a game that mattered to both countries for very different reasons. For Wales, it was just a contest of great sporting importance. They hadn’t reached the World Cup since 1958, when they went all the way to the quarter-finals and were only stopped by the genius of a 17-year-old Pele. For Ukraine, whose leaders, public figures and ordinary citizens are doing all they can to ensure that their conflict does not escape public view, qualification would have been another way to keep their nation and its fate on the lips of the world media. A visit to Qatar would also have provided much joy and perhaps some respite from the horrors their nation continues to endure on a daily basis.

But for Ukraine, this was not the case. They came up against two of the most resilient forces in world football: the Welsh defence, brought together by the excellent Ben Davies, and the will of Gareth Bale. Wales withstood 22 attempts on their goal, nine of them on target, thanks in large part to the magnificence with which Wayne Hennessey kept his net. At the other end of the pack, they were led by Bale, who recently won his fifth UEFA Champions League medal with Real Madrid – a record for a British player – and was now determined to take his country on a journey once considered almost unthinkable. . Bale would be the deciding factor in this game – his first-half free kick was deflected by Ukrainian Andriy Yarmolenko into the net. It was recorded as an own goal but it could be Bale’s biggest contribution on an extraordinary CV.

It’s sometimes hard to believe that Bale is still only 32 years old, given that his career and physique have gone through several distinct phases. He was first the lean, brave and quick left-back at Southampton and Tottenham Hotspur; then, still at Tottenham, Bale emerged from the depths of the gymnasium, his torso teeming with extra muscle, to go wild along each flank; then, now a Welsh Thor of sorts, he went to Real Madrid, hugely indifferent to his world-record transfer fee, the pressure of football at the highest level or his possible alienation by Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane. It’s perhaps fitting that Bale shares a surname with Christian, Hollywood actor perhaps most famous for his ability to transform for his roles. While Christian reduced himself to the finesse of a string to play a factory worker in The machinistGareth has bulked up to take on the role of football superhero.

Still, it would be unfair to say that this was just a Gareth Bale v Ukraine case. Just as Leo Messi has now found magnificent form for Argentina, Wales have found a team structure where they offer their aging superstar the freedom to play at their best. This Wales team is studded with experienced and accomplished campaigners for whom this game was the culmination of many years of effort and who, considering they are all in their 30s, were determined to win. For Hennessey, Chris Gunter, Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen, this was perhaps their last dance at this level, and so they spoke with the rarest of resolve.

They should. Oleksandr Zinchenko’s consistent play and brilliance prompted Ukraine. Zinchenko, who seriously considered returning to his homeland to resist Russia’s invasion, was superb throughout, ensuring that even as Ukraine chased the game, they never panicked, chipping and edging and forcing the ball through barely noticeable gaps in the final third for Wales. Alongside him was the masterful Ruslan Malinovskyi, whose only regret must be not seeing the type of extraordinary long-range strike he regularly unleashes for Atalanta. The speeches Ukrainian players have made on behalf of their country, their pleas for solidarity and their tears at the devastating toll that this massacre in the war in Ukraine is taking on them will hopefully continue to resonate in their sport well beyond this period. country. They were playing for much more than football, unfairly. Their bravery on the pitch should now be matched by politicians around the world.

Despite Ukraine’s best efforts, it was Wales’ day, inspired by their remarkable captain. Much is made, sometimes mockingly, of Bale’s love of golf, with the Madrid press often commenting that Bale would rather spend time playing 18 holes than being with his teammates. Yet Bale’s mentality in high-pressure situations is that of a champion golfer in the final round of a major tournament: unaware of the growing clamor around him, he marches towards glory, his gaze firmly fixed ahead. him. Bale left Spain as one of the most unloved legends of late. He won a famous Champions League title for Real Madrid with a stunning goal against Liverpool in 2018, after which he gave a post-match interview in which he actually asked for a move, frustrated at his lack of time like Messi, however, he has long since found greater satisfaction playing for his national team, where he continues to contribute to an exceptional team spirit.

If there is any consolation for Ukraine, it is that they could not have lost to a better rival, whose main characteristic, beyond their technical gifts, is their sense of unity. . It is this same complicity which has enabled the Ukrainian players to show extraordinary courage in recent months, and which is in the best traditions of team sport. If Ukraine were to be defeated by anyone, then it is fitting that it would be Wales, who once again proved themselves to be the invincible dragon.