met was approx Gareth Bale. If it was Wales, it was always Bale. He may have played just 22 minutes of football in the 10 weeks since the final semi-final win over Austria; he may not be able to continue anything like a full game; he may have actually become a former Real Madrid player; but he is still the player who makes Wales more than just another mid-ranking side.
There will be those who have their subjective preferences for John Charles or Ryan Giggs, Ivor Allchurch or Ian Rush, but what can be said now is that no one has ever achieved more in Wales shirt. Not only did he inspire them to reach the semi-finals of the European Championship and secure first place in the World Cup in 64 years. It’s that he achieved those feats six years apart. Remains remain but this is obviously a different side of Chris Coleman and Bale was key for both of them.
When Bale lined up a free kick 11 minutes before half-time, minds inevitably returned to the free kick he swept into the same goal against Austria in March. This time, on the other side of the pitch, Bale stood on the tee and assessed the conditions: 25 yards, slightly left to right breeze, heavy rain. He picked up his club, glanced at the goal and the wall that stood in the way, examined his pre-shot routine, took his swing and then celebrated when diving Andriy Yarmolenko deflected the ball past his own goalkeeper – which is rarely the case in golf.
Bale is currently a player who plays in fragments. He doesn’t control matches like he once did. He is 32 years old and, although his lack of regular football may extend his career – if he wants to – it also means a lack of basic matchmaking skills. However, somehow the game still revolves around him, as if Bale’s idea is enough to exert gravitational force. And from time to time he picks up a ball from the air with an outstretched foot or discovers a corner that no one else has seen to renew the strength of that idea.
But it wasn’t Bale at all. It was also Wayne Hennessey’s athleticism and confident handling in the rain, Neco Williams’ diligence on the left back, Joe Allen and Dan James tirelessly whipped through midfield and a dozen bodies thrown in the path of shots.
And it was also about singing. What value does Wales have in its choral tradition. As soon as things get tense they can just flip through the hymn book and start singing something exciting and melodic, an inspiration for those on the pitch and a distraction for those outside it. And that, perhaps, is part of what makes Welsh football so enjoyable today, both for fans and for players. There is a sense of togetherness, of fresh peaks climbing together, that is extremely exciting.
As before the victory against Austria in the semi-finals of Wales, Dafydd Iwan, the grandson of one of the founders of Plaid Cymru, performed Yma o Hyd (“Still Here”). His song is about the challenging spirit of Welsh identity and how it remains strong even after almost half a millennium of union with England. But also Ukrainian fans may have found an echo in its words: “We are still here, in spite of everyone and everything.”
And there we run straight into the clumsiness of the occasion. How can the outcome of a football match compete with news of the counterattack in Sievierodonetsk? How can these things occupy the heads and hearts of the same people at the same time? And yet they do. Football is trivial and yet it matters – as an escape, yes, but also as something more, as a symbol of, well, whatever it is.
Fans of Ukraine, who seemed determined to enjoy every second of being Ukrainian in public, held up flags throughout Iwan’s performance; united in a communal assertion of self. This is certainly what fans want, what football is all about, rather than the made-up corporate nonsense of a Camila Cabello concert seemingly designed for those who are there less for the game than for the show. The Ukrainian fans were remembered at the final whistle, and by the Welsh players who applauded them, and by the Welsh fans who joined in their thunderous move: touching gestures that should not be forgotten.
Popular sentiment may have been behind Ukraine but that should not diminish Welsh joy. They have been waiting for this for a long time. They endured Joe Jordan’s handball, Davie Cooper’s penalty, Paul Bodin’s foul.
That those moments feel like obstacles that have been overcome rather than part of an inevitable and ongoing curse is a measure of what Bale and his side have achieved.