CARDIFF, Wales (AP) — Weeks of back spasms were not going to stop Gareth Bale’s mission to lead Wales back to the World Cup.
Try stopping the captain taking to the field when there is a 64-year drought to end.
Try stopping a free kick from a forward who was once the world’s costliest footballer. Ukraine winger Andriy Yarmolenko could only divert it into his own net with a header.
The 1-0 win over war-disrupted Ukraine on Sunday, secured in the 34th minute in the Cardiff downpour, was enough to send Wales back to the World Cup as the country with the longest gap between qualifications for the FIFA showpiece.
“It’s the greatest result in the history of Welsh football,” Bale said. “I’m just delighted we are going to a World Cup. It means everything, it’s what dreams are made of. I’m speechless. I’m so glad we’ve done it for these amazing fans.”
Bale was one of those spectators for the remaining 10 minutes or so after being substituted when his body could offer no more.
“It was difficult,” Bale said. “I haven’t played too much football these last three or four weeks because of my back spasm, but the most important thing was to get through. I give my all. I was running on empty.”
The trip to Qatar gives Bale — British soccer’s most decorated foreign export at Real Madrid — a chance to finally play on the sport’s biggest stage. But the five-time Champions League winner is without a club for next season after being released by Madrid. While saying he has “loads” of offers, the 32-year-old free agent had been coy about his playing future.
Now there is a new club to find to stay match fit for the Nov. 21 World Cup opener against the United States. Then there is Iran and England to play in Group B. The Welsh also played their neighbors at the 2016 European Championship when they lost to England in the group stage.
But Wales did go further than England at Euro 2016 in France, reaching the semifinals where Cristiano Ronaldo led Portugal to victory and then the title. Another soccer great knocked out Wales at the 1958 World Cup, with Pele netting the only goal in eventual champion Brazil’s quarterfinal win.
Wales did contest a third tournament last year, returning to the European Championship and losing to Denmark in the round of 16.
Now Doha is the destination for Wales, which is more accustomed to featuring at Rugby World Cups, having qualified for all nine editions.
“It’s unbelievable — little old Wales at the World Cup,” midfielder Aaron Ramsey said. “It’s amazing.”
Thanks most of all to goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey who thwarted nine shots on target to prevent Ukraine scoring.
“It’s absolutely incredible — not just for me, everybody who’s been on this pitch tonight,” Hennessey said. “Gareth, unbelievable free kick again, so I’m absolutely buzzing. It’s unexplainable. He’s so dangerous at free kicks. When he’s on the field stuff happens and for me he’s an amazing talent and a joy to watch.”
This qualification has been achieved with coaching uncertainty. Robert Page stepped up to lead the team on a temporary basis in early 2021 with Ryan Giggs still out of the management job while awaiting trial on charges of domestic violence.
Now Page is set to lead the team in Qatar.
“I’m so proud of these boys,” Page said. “They thoroughly deserved that. The one thing they needed was a World Cup and they’ve got it.”
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