Wales have not qualified for a major international football tournament since the 1958 World Cup in Sweden where they lost to eventual winners Brazil at the quarter final stage courtesy of a solitary Pele goal. Since then they have come close on several occasions and in recent years managers have lifted their aspirations higher and higher with Mark Hughes taking them close against Russia in the play-offs for Euro 2004.
This time last year Wales languished at their lowest ever FIFA ranking of 117th place, a lot has changed in a year. Wales went on a brilliant spree of results, playing a delightful passing game centred around the technical abilities of Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen in the centre of the park with the attacking speed and dynamism of Gareth Bale and Craig Bellamy on the wings. Wins against Montenegro, Switzerland and Bulgaria saw Wales win the award for the biggest mover of 2011 in FIFA’s official rankings. They swamped Norway 4-1 in one of the most impressive domestic international friendly displays I have ever had the pleasure to witness.
The man behind this meteoric rise was Gary Speed and the Norway game was to be his last as he was tragically found dead from an apparent suicide just 2 weeks later, shocking Welsh football and the global football community to its core.
Chris Coleman is now at the helm doing his utmost to follow in the footsteps of the late Gary Speed but has so far struggled to recreate that sparkle they possessed under the former Everton and Newcastle midfield player. Wales have suffered a small dip in form with defeats to Mexico and Bosnia-Herzegovina in recent friendlies and due to the lowly ranking they possessed just a year ago they were placed in the bottom pot for the World Cup qualifying draw meaning an inevitably difficult group.
Things could be worse however as Group A may be called a ‘Group of Death’ but Wales can look to Estonia for inspiration. Despite losing to the Faeroe Islands during their Euro 2012 qualifying campaign they qualified ahead of Serbia, Slovenia and Northern Ireland for the playoffs as equally matched teams around them continuously stole points against each other. Estonia reached an unprecedented playoff spot where they were beaten by Republic of Ireland.
Italy dominated that group and Wales will look to Croatia to do the same, or indeed the highly talented but disorganised Belgium side; but both can be inconsistent in qualifying campaigns. Serbia are obviously difficult opposition but as Estonia proved are not unflappable, Scotland are inconsistent under Craig Levein and player-for-player Wales should consider themselves a match for the Tartan Army. Macedonia are also difficult opponents, as England fans can vouch for. So with all the teams capable of beating each other could Wales sneak into the playoff spots or even better automatic qualification?
But Aaron Ramsey is determined to give the other teams in their group hell and try and finish off the legacy that Gary Speed had begun to build with this group of players by qualifying for Brazil 2014. That extra incentive, to play in their late mentor’s memory could provide the vital catalyst to edge ahead of their rivals in the ‘Group of Death’ and under the guidance of new manager Chris Coleman end a 56 year wait for international competition.
Do Wales have a chance of qualification? Would you like to see them carry on Gary Speed’s legacy?