Welsh Football's Greatest Moments | Wales vs the World, 2002

Growing up in the 1990s and early 2000s, Welsh football was rarely thrust into playground conversation. At both club and international level, the game was falling increasingly behind its British and Irish rivals. Cardiff City and Swansea City were yo-yoing between Division Three and Four (League 1 and 2) and on the international scene, our proud nation failed to break into even the top 60 in FIFA's World Rankings. Failure to compete in both 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 qualifying would mean a change was needed to push the side on to where it needed to be.

Following Paul Bodin's penalty miss in 1993 and defeat to Romania at the National Stadium, Welsh football would fall into disarray. John Toshack and Mike Smith would do little to boost morale before the enigmatic Bobby Gould took charge. A disappointing qualification campaign for the 1998 World Cup saw Wales finish only above San Marino in Group 7. Despite scoring an impressive 20 goals in just 8 games, the 21 conceded demonstrated that a weak defence could not be covered by the impressive attacking flair of Hughes, Saunders and Giggs.

Gould was to exit in 1999 after another disappointing qualification campaign, this time for the 2000 European Championships. After a promising start which included a brilliant victory over Denmark in Copenhagen, defeat in four of their final five matches saw both the Danes and Switzerland leapfrog Wales into 2nd and 3rd. Towards the end of the campaign, Gould had been replaced as Head Coach by Mark Hughes.

Hughes had enjoyed an impressive playing career throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Playing for some Europe's best clubs, he had become a fan favourite at Man United, Chelsea and even Barcelona. However, upon becoming the manager of Wales in 1999, his inexperience in management was open to debate. Furthermore, Hughes was still playing for Southampton at the time of his appointment and wouldn't retire from the game until 2002. Former Welsh boss Terry Yorath would be quick to question the FAW's decision, believing Hughes' appointment to have been rushed and made in panic. 

However, most were optimistic. Both Barry Horne and Cliff Jones believed the move to be exciting. Having played under some of the game's great managers like Alex Ferguson and Terry Venables, Hughes would be able to command the respect of his squad and introduce skillful play reminiscent of his own style. 
"any manager has to put his own ideas into practice. I’ve got a good idea of how I want the game played, and what you have to do to be successful.” - Mark Hughes, August 1999

On paper, the draw for Wales' 2002 World Cup qualification was promising. Poland, Ukraine, Norway, Armenia and Belarus would be all that stood in the way to South Korea and Japan. Hughes' side would only lose three times, but frustratingly drew 6 games before finally winning the final group fixture against Belarus. Wales had taken the lead in 6 of the ten fixtures, only to throw away precious points in five of them. Hughes would have his work cut out before qualification for Euro 2004 began. Perhaps even more disappointingly, the national team's new home, The Millennium Stadium was left nearly empty by the end of the campaign, Just 7000 supporters (including myself) would watch John Hartson sink Belarus. Belief in Wales had reached a new low.  

"The result ensured that Wales do not have to reflect on a winless World Cup campaign and provided Hughes's managerial career with a boost when defeat could have spawned mutterings of discontent. The Welsh manager will be grateful to have added a tangible marker of success to his CV." - The Guardian

For a stadium capable of holding 75,000 spectators, such attendances were not good enough. For all of the qualification failings, however, Wales could boast the emergence of talented individuals. Craig Bellamy, Simon Davies and Mark Delaney were Premier League regulars by the end of 2001 and Hughes could justifiably look forward to the future. Such promise was perhaps to thank for the arranging of two glamour friendlies in 2002. First Marcelo Bielsa's Argentina, and then Germany would visit the Millennium Stadium.

Going into the tie against the South Americans, Wales were ranked at 101st in the world. For all of the undeniable talent in the squad, such a ranking was embarrassing. Argentina, on the other hand, were as high as second with the World Cup just around the corner. With world-class talent throughout their squad, noticeably in the forms of Juan Sebastian Veron, Juan Roman Riquelme and Kily Gonzalez, the likelihood of the Welsh getting anything out of the tie was all but zero. The match itself had been arranged at the request of the AFA due to the Millennium Stadium's retractable roof. Such a feature would be similar to what the Argentinians would play in at the subsequent World Cup.

62,500 supporters would cram into the Millennium to watch the encounter. Such an improvement in attendance was widely welcomed even if most had come to see Argentina rather than Wales. Against all the odds, it would be Wales who took the lead. Craig Bellamy headed in Ryan Giggs' corner at the far post to send the home fans wild. Despite a flurry of Welsh chances at the end of the first half, Argentina would level in the second 45 through Julio Cruz. The goal would reinvigorate La Albiceleste, but Wales would hold onto a famous draw against the favourites for that summer's World Cup.

It was a result that many believed would kick-start a renaissance in Welsh football. Described by The Guardian as 'gutsy in midfield and defence and lively in attack', the same newspaper would comment that Wales could 'surely look forward to a bright future'. Football fever was to engulf Wales for the first time in decades and rugby was to have a genuine rival for the honour of being the national sport. Phil Stead writes that a 'feel good factor' was being generated at the football and this worried the rugby community. Perhaps, it was the poor results of the Welsh rugby team which was really to blame for such a swing in popularity. Further evidence for Welsh football's rebirth was to be found three months later as Germany came to Cardiff.

In front of a decent crowd of over 36,000 fans, Germany would use the tie to warm up their squad before the upcoming World Cup. For Hughes, the clash provided the perfect opportunity to introduce Cardiff City youngster Robert Earnshaw into the starting XI for the first time. Soaking up German pressure and playing on the counter-attack, Rudi Voller's men struggled to keep up with the pace of the Welsh front-line. After a goalless first half, a Hartson knock down would land at the feet of Earnshaw who after a few touches would lash the ball left-footed past Oliver Kahn and into the top corner. Wild scenes in the Millennium Stadium would follow as the diminutive forward somersaulted through the air.

Despite relentless German pressure in the second half and having their woodwork to thank for keeping out efforts from Jancker and Bode, Wales would hold on to defeat the former World Champions and record a historic victory. Wales looked rejuvenated. Hughes' men were not overawed by their opponents and went toe-to-toe on multiple occasions with 'tenacious tackling' as the game threatened to boil over in several flashpoints. Victory over the Germans brought back memories of Wales' 1-0 win over the same team in 1991, but under Hughes, the future seemed a far brighter prospect.
"The performance bore all the hallmarks of what you would expect from a side coached by Hughes. It was a display full of passion, commitment and skill on a historic night at the Millennium Stadium." - Wales Online
Germany were written off for the following World Cup after the defeat and yet managed to use it to their advantage, finishing as eventual runners-up to Brazil. Such a final performance from Voller's side only served to amplify the Welsh victory as one of the nation's finest ever. Furthermore, it helped to finish the 2001/02 season with a growing sense of momentum as Euro 2004 qualifying began in September. 2002 would end with perhaps the greatest victory in Welsh football history (at least by that point) as Simon Davies and Craig Bellamy scored to beat a star-studded Italy 2-1 in Cardiff.

In a single calendar year, Welsh international football had been utterly transformed. Hughes had revitalised the team as his side began to compete with some of the world's best nations. Support would grow and intensify into 2003 as attendances failed to drop lower than 72,000 throughout qualification for Euro 2004. Wales would ultimately fall at the final hurdle as Russia broke our hearts in an agonising play-off defeat. Further disappointment would follow in resulting campaigns but with each year the signs of a future 'golden generation' were beginning to develop. Arguably, the most important element to draw from 2002 was that it inspired a generation of supporters to understand that Wales could mix it with the big guns of the football world. Argentina, Germany, Italy - all in a year's work.

©The Football History Boys, 2021


Popular Posts