Sunday, November 27, 2022

Bale and Ramsey look like a Euro 2016 tribute act and symbolize a wasted Welsh World Cup dream

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Bale was completely ineffective and Ramsey’s lack of exercise left a gaping hole in midfield. The pair all have the same ideas, but with bodies that are no longer the viable scaffolding for a dream to weave

Wales 0-2 Iran (Cheshmi 90+8, Rezaeian 90+11)

AHMED BIN ALI STADIUM – Six Welsh players fell to their knees after 99 minutes. They were broken, emotionally drained by their underperformance and drained by the thought of missed opportunities. You had fought so hard to qualify, and for what? A moment in history that lasted little more than a moment.

After 101 minutes, five Iranian players fell to their knees, barely hearing the shrill crackle of the final whistle as three teams from Ahmad bin Ali Stadium cheered en masse. They too were broken, emotionally devastated by their overperformance and exhausted by the thought of second chances. They had been beaten so badly against England, but what the heck? They have a moment in history that will last at least until they play USA. The qualification is in your hands.

Sometimes football, that silly little game we get so angry, outraged and perplexed about, can be a bit too much.

This was an afternoon full of extraordinary emotions and socio-political consequences. The Iranian players looked very distressed as they sang a national anthem, which was booed and jeered at by their supporters. Fans were shown on screen in tears, moved by the magnitude of the context in which their team is being asked to perform. Stick to football, some will tell you. think again

It made for an extraordinary atmosphere, the usual recipe of jubilation and anticipation, overwhelmed by fear, pathos, nervousness and the emotional weight of the anthems. When Ancient land of my fathers is your musical support act, get ready to get goosebumps. The crowd tried to work their way out of this impressive fog with chants and shouts.

Wales are used to relying on underdog status for fuel, a self-inspiring us-versus-the-world ism that has formed the basis for so many improvements. It mingled with fierce pride and the rise of a healthy nationalism to create a mood that transcends the realm of the intangible.

Here, as the Rote Wand gathered behind a gate with their bucket hats and rousing songbooks, something different. Wales weren’t the second favourite. “Do your best and nobody can ask for more” suddenly wasn’t good enough anymore.

Perhaps they were frightened by this pressure. This team has said so many times that they are just happy to be at the World Cup that some may have started to believe it, but not many. They knew too well to limit their expectations; 2016 taught them that. They came to win. Go home without one and they would always wonder if they missed their chance. England is their last chance.

The lingering grudge will be that Wales failed to appear at this tournament. There was precious little left of the qualifying brio. They wasted set pieces, missed passes, hit the first man with crosses, and played balls just before or after the run. They fought with their usual lust only when their own ineptitude had brought them into dire straits.

Robert Page also got some things wrong. Off the field, his insinuation that Germany lost to Germany because of his pre-game gesture was a blatant misstep by a man who got most things spot on – lost Wales because Page thought so much about Germany and ‘One Love” thought? “Bracelet?

More chaos on the pitch. Aaron Ramsey was a fabulous footballer a few years ago and his recent international form made it perfectly legal to use him against Iran. But his lack of mobility forced Ramsey to stay high on the pitch and with Ethan Ampadu at depth, Wales operated with the less sighted central midfield. Iran led the game.

Gareth Bale was completely ineffective, another 30-year-old who just didn’t look fit; he too stayed. This couple looked like a Euro 2016 tribute act with all the same ideas but with bodies that are no longer a viable framework for a dream to weave. When Page finally made changes, he was supposed to undress Ampadu and not Ramsey. Cut to a defense that needs to advance higher up the field to close the gaps, a long ball into space catches them and Wayne Hennessey commits a horrific foul.

The sad irony is that Wales waited so long to qualify for a World Cup and then didn’t have a squad to showcase the best in the country when they got there. This is a source of regret. When your country has been bad-mouthed, your football fans are hard-wired that there’s no better way, and both are revitalized by a surge of pride in a team that reflects the people it represents, falling behind is never easy swallow.

But even the Red Wall can accept that Wales isn’t the only nation looking to show and inspire the best version of themselves. Iran won a football game on Friday afternoon, but you try to tell the tears in the stands before the game and the tears on the pitch afterwards that the impact of November 25th can be measured in Group B points.

When Iran lapped the pitch ten minutes after confirming their victory, thousands of Welsh fans rose to give them a standing ovation and were thanked in return. Much has been said about the circumstances of this World Cup. Here, at least, was a moment of simple, pure humanity.

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