Why is this one of Welsh football’s greatest moments? Let’s rewind to the beginning of my support for Welsh football, an evening at the Racecourse in 1976 and a 1-2 loss to England in a friendly. Carry on via Yugoslavia in 1976, Anfield 1977 and there have been so many hopes crushed. Move to the 80s, 90s and 2000s and the promise of the qualifications that never materialised.
Positivity therefore was overflowing once more for Euro 2016, this had to be the one, especially with the exciting squad Wales now boasted. Following the qualification draw and fixtures being released, the first task was finding Andorra! I had been to Andorra once before, en-route to the Salvador Dali Museum in Figueres, so to fly there should have been a doddle. All of this meant that I could begin to plan an epic journey to the European Championships beginning in Andorra and culminating in Paris, 2016. Maybe by train, the trans-Europe express? Although I’m probably barred since the 1978 incident that no-one talks about and I can’t remember, but buckets of red wine are a recurring nightmare of mine! That’s it then, it has to be by air – Perpignan, Toulouse or Barcelona are the options. Flights to Perpignan finish days before the game, one down, two to go. Toulouse works but getting from there to Andorra is a nightmare. Barcelona it is.
Thankfully, I’d booked a transfer from the airport to Hotel Barcelona, Sant Julia de Loria. Clear directions took me to the transfer desk and a polite but Spanish “We don’t do transfers to Andorra”. This was no jobsworth or the 'computer saying "No"', but I did get an “I’ll ask the manager”. She was right they didn’t do transfers to Andorra, but they had booked me a taxi as they had accepted my reservation. This made me a trifle worried as I had only paid £28 upfront for the transfer, which at the time seemed a gift horse. Eventually, an eight-seater Mercedes people carrier left with one panicking passenger as the meter was running. The driver wouldn’t have been too concerned the first time I asked “Will there be anything to pay in Andorra?”, but after two hours it was probably a bit wearing. Although I guess at first, he must have been delighted not to be asked “What time are you on until?”. To be fair, I wouldn’t have dared ask that as it’s a two-and-a-half-hour drive and after depositing me in Andorra, he wouldn’t be home until midnight. Plus, I was listening to one end of the conversations with his wife asking when he would be home!!
|The beautiful Andorran scenary|
Once across the border from Spain into Andorra, the only way to describe the journey was 'uphill'. I arrived as darkness fell and still with the trepidation that I would be asked to pay the €220 bill, but no. Out of the taxi and into Hotel Barcelona, not forgetting a very generous tip for the driver. After all I had paid upfront and needed to be collected Wednesday morning at 7.00am for my flight home. The only pang of conscience that I had was for the person who had booked my £28 transfer that would be costing €440+ for the round trip. Where else other than Barcelona would you expect the Hotel Barcelona to be though?
Following Wales was indeed proving luxurious and economical with my €25 per night room (with breakfast) including a balcony and mountain view. During the ski season people would kill for this room and view. The only downside that I’m going to admit to is that I had booked the hotel as it is next door to the stadium – how was I to know Andorra had more than one?! So, in addition to my mountain view, I could see the stadium where the game wasn’t going to be played.
Within two years of my visit, however, it was demolished. The Camp d'Esports d'Aixovall had to be one of the most beautiful football grounds in the world. Behind one goal was a farmed terrace growing tobacco, which four Andorrans were busy harvesting. My main fear at the ground was that I’d be locked in and my screams for help would be interpreted as the practising of the local yodeller!
|The old, Camp d'Esports d'Aixovall|
By now it was getting close to when I intended to set off to the ground, the Estadi Nacional. The journey to the ground was predictable - steep valleys with multi-storeyed houses on either side. When you’re a stranger on a bus in Andorra it’s impossible to find landmarks to use as guides, and this was no easier once I’d alighted from the bus. Even the fans were going in opposite directions as though none of us knew where we should be heading. Incorporated within all this natural beauty there are some breath-taking modern buildings along with the human sculptures atop a pole.
As with all good footy trips it pays to arrive early. Like pre-match everywhere, the small bars and cafes quickly become full. To avoid the crowds, search out the bar and cafes on the side streets, and order in Spanish if you want the local menu. Eventually setting off to the ground, after a delicious potatas bravas, I was again struck by the beauty of the area. With my early arrival I was able to explore the stadium and its facilities. Even after gaining entry to the VIP area pre match, there were no programmes or freebies to collect.
|The away end at Estadi Nacional|
Although only a small principality, the inclusion of Gareth Bale in the team meant that there was the usual pre-match scramble to catch sight of the players as they left the team coach at the 3,306 capacity Estadi Nacional, Andorra la Vella. This was the first game at the new national stadium, situated in the highest capital city in Europe at 1,023m. So new in fact that a decision on whether the game could take place was not taken by UEFA until days before the game.
The Estadi Nacional is literally squeezed in between the mountain sides, the visitors end alongside a fast-flowing mountain river. Once inside, the ground can best be described as ‘snug’ and this all contributes to the creation of an old-fashioned cup tie atmosphere. There is even a handy mesh fencing that allows visitors to fasten their flags to, although this can be quite precarious!
This opening game of the 2016 qualifiers was to be a stern test. Only six minutes had gone when we were 1-0 down as a result of a dubious penalty, with Neil Taylor adjudged to have fouled Ivan Lorenzo not by the referee but one of the officials behind the goal. Defender Ildefons Lima stepped up to score the resulting penalty. To rub salt into the wound, that was Andorra's first competitive goal for four years and Wales were finding it tricky to get their passing game going on the 3G surface. Six minutes gone and a goal down to the team ranked 199th in the world. Andorra were boosted by that goal and it took a moment of magic from Gareth Bale with a classic header past goalkeeper Ferran Pol from a left-wing cross by Ben Davies on 22 minutes to produce the equaliser. Wales struggled to create chances against a tight Andorra defence and, as half time approached, Joe Allen was booked after a tussle with Andorra's Edu Peppe.
Wales began the second half with more resolve and Andorra were put under pressure from a couple of set-pieces. On the newly laid 3G surface, passing was a lottery with some long balls to try and penetrate the Andorran defence. There were plenty of set pieces as Andorra became more physical, but none of them provided the hoped for goal. As Wales continued to push forward, Joe Ledley replaced Simon Church after 62 minutes. Bale was once again felled in the 82nd minute, but his resulting free kick was saved by Pol. Riera had broken from the wall too quickly and so Bale was given a second chance, this time he made no mistake and placed the ball into the bottom corner. Finally, Wales had the lead and the journey to Lyon and the semi-final of Euro '16 was beginning to roll. Full time followed shortly with the first match completed and three points gained.
Why was this one of Welsh football’s greatest moments for me? The pitch invasion that followed the winning goal was probably generated by relief as much as joy! All of us who were there that night saw the foundations of the team spirit and the never say die attitude that we witnessed so many times over the next two years. Think back to all those false dawns and hopes from 1958 onwards. Six minutes gone and staring once more down the barrel of disappointment and this team dug deep to ultimately reward us with an unforgettable summer in France!
|Andy captures the moment Gareth Bale grabbed the winner|
By Andy Cartledge (@andycthewriter) - Written for @TFHBs
©The Football History Boys, 2021