SHORTLY before 7pm on a rain-sodden day in the capital a moment many feared they may never see arrived with a sharp blast of a referee’s whistle. 

Ukraine, who had looked dangerous from the first to the 90th minute of a tense winner takes all showdown in Cardiff, had hoped to launch one final attack before full-time was confirmed. 

The television cameras quickly cut to an elated Wales boss Robert Page, who was mobbed by coaching staff and players. Wayne Hennesey ran from his goal arms raised. It was secured. A 1-0 victory meant Wales occupied the last European qualifying spot at the World Cup in Qatar. 

A first World Cup since a quarter final run in 1958, ended only by the emergence of a 17-year-old, the legendary Brazilian Pele and the absence of Wales’ gentle giant, John Charles kicked out of the tournament in the previous game by opponents who couldn’t cope with his skill. 

No wonder Hennesy had sprinted clear, the 6ft 6” keeper, the man mountain from Ynys Mon, had defended his goal heroically, unbelievably at times, and soaked up the pressure of knowing that the antidote to nearly six and a half decades of World Cup pain could be lost in seconds. 

The National Wales: Gareth Bale (left) and goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey celebrate. Picture: David Davies/PA WireGareth Bale (left) and goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey celebrate. Picture: David Davies/PA Wire

Ben Davies – in the words of S4C commentator Nic Parry - “a real life Ben-digeidfran” - marshalled the Welsh defence. 

The giant from the Mabinogion could wade across the Irish sea and used his own body as a bridge for his soldiers to walk across. Wales loves heroes and Welsh history a tall story. 

READ MORE: World Cup a reality as Wales beat Ukraine in play-off thriller

This team, the evolution of a squad which broke a 58 year major finals hoodoo with qualification for Euro 2016, is the stuff of legend. Like that marvelous run in France. Pinch yourself this is real, it is happening. 

Any sober analysis of an era defining afternoon will have to acknowledge the efforts not just of all 14 players who took the field and the wider squad. But the hard work of successive Welsh coaching staffs and their support teams.

The Football Association of Wales, and countless volunteer, grassroots coaches who will have first helped enthusiastic young boys learn the game and the dedication and sacrifice of their families. 

Another crucial element is that elusive, and two-faced, aspect of many success stories, luck. 

As the dual netball/football international Nia Jones said in her BBC commentary: “There’s a famous song that says ‘Everyday when I wake up I thank the Lord I’m Welsh’. I thank the Lord, Gareth Bale is Welsh’.” 

He truly is a gift from God. All human life is, of course. But this is sport and there is tendency for losing perspective and for over-statement. 

The National Wales: A Ukraine fan in the stands holds up an anti-war banner before the FIFA World Cup 2022 Qualifier play-off final match at Cardiff City Stadium. Picture: Mike Egerton/PA WireA Ukraine fan in the stands holds up an anti-war banner before the FIFA World Cup 2022 Qualifier play-off final match at Cardiff City Stadium. Picture: Mike Egerton/PA Wire

Pause, for breath. There are much bigger things in the world than football, as the plight of all those impacted by the war in Ukraine illustrates, but sport is one of the things that make life enjoyable and it's okay to take it seriously. 

And in doing so we must really ask ourselves, is Gareth Bale y Mab Darogan? The son predicted by poets who would return to lead Wales. 

READ MORE: Wales, the World Cup and 64 years of hurt

He made his debut for his country shortly after reaching the legal age to buy a lottery ticket, and at the point many begin to realise that growing up isn’t necessarily about dreams coming true. But it was Wales who hit the jackpot. 

Bale is a supremely gifted footballer whose talent seems to install belief in his teammates – and has rewarded the faith of the fans their dreams can be realised. 

But he also has a desire and work ethic that doesn’t allow him to leave his own success, and that of his teammates, to come down to chance. Those free kicks and dead ball situations, which Wales players have said they have no doubt Bale will score from, are the product of dedication to his craft and the pursuit of excellence. 

Top level sport requires self-determination and belief and single-mindedness. But Bale is also a team player “just one of the boys” and those boys acknowledge a connection with the fans, the Red Wall. 

The National Wales: The Red Wall celebrates qualification. Picture: Gruffydd Thomas/Huw Evans AgencyThe Red Wall celebrates qualification. Picture: Gruffydd Thomas/Huw Evans Agency

It is all these elements combined that are together stronger and that have installed a new, self-confidence in a nation that often feels overlooked, or as if no matter how much it shouts or is worthy of commendation, is denied. 

There is no denying Gareth Bale. We know that we will have a player at the World Cup that all 31 other nations will be aware of.

Every country competing in Qatar, and the hundreds of others in Wales’ usual ‘interested neutral' role, will know that Gareth Bale plays for Wales. The country with, as the man himself says, “the dragon on our shirts”. 

And a language of our own. Millions will know, or learn, that not everyone here speaks Cymraeg but they will also see that despite everyone and everything, we’re still here. 

Pictures of Gareth Bale singing loud and proud “Er gwaetha pawb a phopeth/Ry'n ni yma o hyd”, with Dafydd Iwan joining the squad on the pitch, have already been seen by millions more than our population of three million. At the final whistle the squad assembled around Welsh language signage thanking the fans. 

Intrigued? The world will be.  

READ MORE: Yma O Hyd, Wales chants and the football supporters' song book

What does World Cup qualification mean for Wales? What is its value in terms of the economy (£9 million to the FAW just for qualification apparently). No doubt claims of “multi-million pound boosts” will be made. But save it for another day if you must. 

 

Let's celebrate what qualification means to fans so long starved of success and players so often denied the greater stage, and for the pure enjoyment and fulfilment taking part, and taking our place, in world football’s greatest show can deliver. 

Last week the angrier element of Welsh Twitter was enraged that Gareth Bale had accepted an honour in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list.

READ MORE: There is nothing remarkable about Wales captain Gareth Bale on the Honours list

Really they were disappointed in themselves as they discovered a man, who’d given no indication of his feelings on the issue, had shown they had a misplaced faith that, for some reason, he shared the exact same viewpoint as them. 

The National Wales: Signage in Welsh thanked the Wal Goch, the Red Wall, as Wales players celebrate World Cup qualification. Picture: Gruffydd Thomas/Huw Evans AgencySignage in Welsh thanked the Wal Goch, the Red Wall, as Wales players celebrate World Cup qualification. Picture: Gruffydd Thomas/Huw Evans Agency

Gareth Bale has always delivered on what he’s promised on the field. That is where he has rewarded the faith shown in him. He has made no other promises to the public. 

For nearly 30 years Wales fans have sung the Andy Williams favourite ‘Can’t Take My Eyes off You’. 

Viva Gareth Bale, you are just too good to be true, only he really is the realisation of Welsh footballing dreams and set to warm our November nights at a World Cup which we just won’t be able to take our eyes off. 

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