Wales' most successful player is dreaming of a victory on Saturday that could pave the way to Germany.
For most of Ryan Giggs' life failure has been a foreign country, as alien as the concept of Dylan Thomas nursing a tonic water or Richard Burton stammering into a microphone. For all that has been written of the majesty of John Charles or the diversity of John Toshack's career, Giggs is the most successful Welsh footballer there has ever been; eight championships, four FA Cup winners' medals and a European Cup.
They have, however, all been won away from Wales, beyond the far shore of the River Dee in Manchester. Like George Best, George Weah or even Dwight Yorke, it has been Giggs's fate to be a big player for a small country. Now he is past the age of 30, the 2006 World Cup in Germany, where he made his international debut 13 years ago, represents a final chance.
"Ever since I've been in the team, the aim has been to qualify for a major championship; the only way I can look at my career and be happy with it is if Wales qualify," he said. "If I don't qualify, it will be seen by a lot of players in the team as a failure. That's what we play for; we compete to make World Cups and European Championships. Failure is something I'm not used to. I'm fortunate to have had so much success at club level but in internationals it simply hasn't been the same."
The odds must be that Giggs will not play in a World Cup finals, but should he inspire Wales to victory over England on his home ground at Old Trafford on Saturday, it would make a fine consolation. Denis Law counted the day England won the 1966 World Cup as one of the worst of his life, a bitterness that was made more palatable when the following year Scotland came to Wembley and stuffed all that perceived superiority down Alf Ramsey's throat. If anything, the intervening years have deepened the intensity of that dislike for the English in Glasgow and Cardiff.
I remarked that the gap between Wales and England must be narrower than at any time since Giggs made his debut in 1991 but he would have none of it. "I don't know about that. If you think about the real rivalry, we would have fancied our chances at any time over the last 10 years. We have proved against Italy we can do it and if we perform to that standard, we will have a great chance."
Giggs smiled that at Manchester United's training ground, every one of their non-English players "and especially the manager" wanted a Wales win, adding he was determined to enjoy the moment. The last time he had played an international at Old Trafford, they had lost 1-0 to Scotland, and he was captaining England Schoolboys.
United have contributed five players to Sven Goran Eriksson's squad and, apart from perhaps Wayne Rooney and Alan Smith, Giggs is more familiar with their game than with those of his international team-mates. A decade or so ago, he was Rooney; a teenager in whom enormous hopes were housed. "He is at the best place, he has got the best manager he could wish for and the players around him will look after him," Giggs said of Rooney. "It will get harder for him because at 18 you are fearless, you can't wait to train, you can't wait to play games, you don't want to be giving interviews, you just want to concentrate on your football."
Giggs made repeated reference to the night in Cardiff two Octobers ago when Wales demonstrably outplayed Italy, which seemed to open up the road to Portugal. It bothered him that this level of performance had not been sustained, although he added that Mark Hughes had since been unable to select the 11 who so shocked Giovanni Trapattoni's side.
As the only world-class footballer in Hughes's squad, the expectations surrounding Giggs are huge, equal to those on Rooney and David Beckham and internationals are rarely won single-handed. Perhaps his best recent display was in the Euro 2004 play-off in Moscow, where his commitment earned him a two-match ban, courtesy of a raised elbow.
Wales attempted to schedule their World Cup qualifiers so his absence would have less impact, asking to play the weakest nations in Group Six, Azerbaijan and Northern Ireland, first. Wales produced two draws, one stodgy, the other shambolic. And yet when Giggs was on holiday watching an unremarkable Greek side win the European Championships, was there not a pang of disappointment, that something astonishing had been achieved by a nation no better than Wales? "Greece winning Euro 2004 gave everyone hope, even Porto winning the Champions' League; last season seemed to be the year for the underdogs. It just showed that if you are organised and defensively solid, you can win a tournament."
This, naturally, would be the perfect way for Ryan Giggs to take his leave of international football, although victory against England could provide a lovely memory. Driving into Manchester United's training ground at Carrington a week on Friday would be something to look forward to; a smile and a wisecrack from Sir Alex Ferguson would be guaranteed. "There have been a lot of highlights with Wales; some of the performances we have produced at the Millennium Stadium have made me very proud," Giggs reflected. "But this would top anything."Reuse content