COLEMAN’S men look to exorcise ghosts of the past in front of a full capacity Cardiff crowd.
It has been over 11 years since the Welsh public’s interest in the exploits of their national football team has managed to reach such an exhilarating crescendo. Back then, it was Mark Hughes’ battle-hardened veterans who had led a breathless charge for glory in the Euro 2004 qualifiers, capturing the imaginations of Welsh football fans in their droves. During those halcyon days of optimism and expectation, Wales became the best supported side in the whole of Europe, as a series of stunning results, most notably a famous home win over footballing aristocrats Italy, propelled the Red Dragons into the final play-off stage and a date with destiny against Russia. Despite having stumbled over the line somewhat during the second half of the group stage, a defiant goalless draw in Moscow during the first leg was enough to convince a buoyant crowd of 74,000 who turned up for the return leg that, at long last, glory beckoned. After an agonising litany of near misses, it seemed that Wales’ 45 year wait in footballing purgatory was coming to an end. The footballing gods, however, are rarely swayed by such sentiment. A devastating 1-0 defeat dashed Welsh dreams yet again, and thus another entry was added into the ever burgeoning chapter of Welsh football history entitled ‘Glorious failures’. Watching on at home as a tearful 13 year old (my Dad and younger brother had snaffled our only tickets), I experienced my first proper taste of sporting heartbreak that evening. The anguish was slow to subside.
As the Cardiff City Stadium prepares for a 33,000 sell-out on June 12th, the first for a Welsh international since the visit of England four years ago, the bullishness of the Welsh squad about their prospects of extending their unbeatenrun is palatable, however they will be wary of underestimating their Belgian opponents. Indeed, the Belgians are undergoing something of a footballing renaissance of their own at the moment, having recovered from the nadir of the mid-2000s to become a respected European powerhouse in their own right. Currently ranked the third best side in world football, Mark Wilmots’ team is sprinkled with stardust, and have the rare combination of youth and ample experience on their side. No-one encapsulates this new spirit of Belgian artistry better than Eden Hazard, recently voted the PFA Player of the Year for his role in propelling a relentless Chelsea to a league and cup double. Blessed with a dazzling array of pace, technique and agility, the former Lille player has, at the age of 24, firmly established himself as one of the best players in world football. For once, Jose Mourinho might not have been indulging in hyperbole when he claimed, in response to reports that Real Madrid were casting covetous glances at his playmaker, it would cost ‘£100 million per leg’ to prise Hazard away.
Welsh football has endured more false dawns than we would care to remember, but Chris Coleman’s men seem better equipped than ever to banish the ghosts of the past. Maybe, just maybe, this time will be different.