KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —- Wales are treading a familiar path. They have been competing in the World Cup since the late 1940s and, for all the excitement of their recent Euro adventures, have appeared at the finals only once.
On Tuesday caretaker manager Rob Page and his team host Czech Republic in the second challenge of their 19th qualifying campaign. Last Wednesday they lost their opener 3-1 to top-ranked Belgium and filled the gap inbetween by giving the reserves a run-out in a home friendly win by 1-0 against Mexico.
The chilly Cardiff night was a significant occasion for Wales captain Chris Gunter who appropriately celebrated a clean sheet on becoming the country’s first man to reach 100 caps. Once upon a time this was a rare milestone. But since England’s Billy Wright became the first footballer to reach three figures a further 539 had followed his example before Gunter signed in.
That tally of record holders demonstrates that, for all the mischievous talk about fading interest, national teams have never been as busy.
In Wright’s day FIFA had only half the number of member nations as today’s 211 and nothing like as many competitions with the cascade of lucrative associated qualifying matches.
Back then friendly matches were occasions of national prestige. Now they are little more than practice matches. Points are at stake in national team matches rather than prestige.
Of course Welsh sport knows all about both points and prestige after the rugby team captured the Six Nations title on Friday without even playing, courtesy of Scotland’s dramatic win in France.
Back to Saturday night football and Wales had never beaten Mexico, ranked ninth in the world, and El Tri had never played in Wales. The last man to score a Welsh goal against Mexico had been the great John Charles in 1962.
Some 59 years later Cardiff City’s Kieffer Moore followed the example of the Gentle Giant in his home stadium in the 11th minute after delicate play by Jonny Williams.
Mexico had far more of the possession and were as neat, tricky and energetic as ever but produced comparatively little in terms of chances.
Luis Rodriguez had a low drive safely held by Wayne Hennessey just before the interval but the goalkeeper did not know much about a second-half effort from Lozano which ricocheted off his boot and over the bar.
Gareth Bale, Tottenham’s Real Madrid loanee, contributed a late cameo appearance as a substitute on old friend Gunter’s big day though Mexico should have averted only a second defeat in 23 games. Diego Lainez shot wastefully over the bar with the last kick of the game.
Wales have issues ahead. A qualifying need to beat the Czechs is one before a looming resolution of the management situation ahead of the Euro finals. Page has been standing in for Ryan Giggs who has had his bail extended to May 1 after denying an allegation of assault.
The FA of Wales will doubtless prefer to await developments, particularly amid the power vacuum created by the departure of long-time ceo Jonathan Ford over a controversial staffing appointment.
Now for Wales, more than ever, it’s all about the players.