Giggs desperate to have the last laugh over old pal 'Becks'

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The Independent Football

But if it's sincerity you are looking for? Try whichever male voice choir it is that the Welsh have enlisted to entice the masses from the public houses that flank every yard of this blessed amphitheatre.

Well, that is not exactly true as at the head of the two lines striding out as the final notes of "Men of Harlech" desperately cling on to patriotic heartstrings, there will be one player in red, and one in white, smirking at each other with real feeling as they ferociously try not to giggle themselves silly at the surrealness of it all.

"Fancy it," said Ryan Giggs yesterday as the hours counted down to a moment that you could just tell he has been waiting a sizeable proportion of his 31 years for. "Becks and me, both captains of our own countries, leading them out in front of 70,000 people. If you'd have told us that when we were kids at United, that wouldn't have been in our wildest dreams. Wales versus England, in front of a sell-out crowd at the Millennium Stadium? It doesn't get any bigger than that."

Except it does get bigger than that, as "Becks" could tell him. Much, much bigger. So big, in fact, that petty home tussles don't seem that massive a deal any more, and neither does that irritating formality of having to qualify for finals as the very trophies themselves leap so tantalisingly into focus; one keeper's howler away here, one referee's call away there. But David Beckham would never be as cruel to put his friend right on this fact, and neither should anyone else presume to be. Because it is the sporting tragedy of this British footballing generation that Giggs has not been allowed to let loose those double-jointed ankles on the grandest stages of all and, in truth, is never likely to be.

"Does that bother me?" he asked at the base of the Welsh camp that will today be fighting for the familiar prize of mere pride after yet another major championship disappeared from a radar that has not had a proper sighting since 1958. "Well, yeah of course it does. It's been one of my ambitions to qualify for a major finals with my country and we've come close a few times against Romania in the 90s and in that play-off against Russia a few years ago.

"But people ask me that question nowadays as if my chance has gone, as if it will never happen for me now. Well I'm not thinking like that, I'm thinking of what I can still achieve with my country. I'm 31 and if I have four or five years left of my career, or whatever, then I'm determined to keep playing for Wales throughout them. There'd be no point in playing on now otherwise, as we're going through a rebuilding stage and we're not thinking about next year but the European Championships in 2008 and the World Cup two years after that. I believe we can qualify for those. Honestly, I do."

His continued presence makes it that much easier for Wales to dream on with such conviction too, especially as this grateful nation reflects how close their one current link with world-class football came to leaving the international scene. In the run-up to John Toshack's first game in charge in February - a decidedly unpalatable friendly against Hungary - the Cardiffian-by-birth revealed he had even sought the advice of Sir Alex Ferguson to see if it made sense to carry on. Selflessly his Manchester United mentor told him yes, it most definitely would do. "That helped make up my mind," he said, "and I haven't regretted it."

Not to say there were not moments when he questioned his will to carry on under a new manager who he confessed to hurling abuse at in the dressing room and "calling every name under the sun" as Toshack criticised Wales's latest doomed efforts as a television pundit. And during the first days of his coaching regime, Toshack must have been sceptical himself as Giggs stood there on the training ground, hands on hips, seemingly non-plussed at what he was being told. It was only then that Toshack realised he'd been talking in Spanish.

As ice-breakers go, this was hardly the Titanic, although if Giggs had stopped to ponder he might have viewed this as the highest praise possible - Toshack hadn't worked with anyone of Giggs' class since his days with the Bernabeu barons. But the decisive commendation came with the captainship bestowed so cannily by Toshack. In an instant, Giggs was won over, the reluctant superstar now had a vital role to play in grooming this brave, new Wales.

"No, at the start of my career, I wouldn't have seen myself as a natural captain like some others," he admitted. "And I'm still not vocal, and never will be. My style is to lead by example and if you look around now, all the captains aren't necessarily as loud on the pitch as say Bryan Robson, Steve Bruce or Roy Keane has been. With the young lads we have in the set-up now, it is important for the senior players to bring them on and hopefully they will look up to me in the same way I looked up to Ian Rush and Mark Hughes when I was a youngster in the squad, and how they conducted themselves. I've got to do this. I doubt if I'll shout and scream, though."

But if Giggs was of the mind, or indeed the character, to deliver a rousing, pre-match speech today, then what would he say to the likes of Swansea's Sam Ricketts at left-back, Coventry's Richard Duffy at right-back or Carl Fletcher in midfield? "You don't want to be apprehensive, you don't want to be scared," said Giggs. "You want to be looking forward to playing against Rooney, Beckham, Gerrard, you want to be looking forward to marking them out the game, of scoring goals against the likes of Rio Ferdinand. Yeah, there's going to be nerves, but a few of those are a good thing and if I was their age and just about to go out and play against England, I would be buzzing, I wouldn't be able to wait.

"These are the games you need to revel in as they might never come around again. You need to come off at the end and feel you've given everything. And that's what our young lads need to do and I think they will. Of course, we won't know until tomorrow but more than anything I would like us to just go out and put up a decent performance and give England a better game than we did at Old Trafford last year. That was such a disappointment, because we just didn't perform. I know that we had more experienced players like Gary Speed back then, but now we are going into unknown territory and it's exciting. It really is. This a day to enjoy."

And Becks will no doubt beam back in agreement.