It is nothing if not a bittersweet scenario. Ryan Giggs, who has dreamed all his professional life of playing in a major international tournament, will tonight be asked to drive his country towards the European Championships with the knowledge he may miss most of Wales' games should they reach Portugal.
Uefa, the governing body of the European game, yesterday cleared the Manchester United winger to play in the second leg of the play-off with Russia, who had attempted to have Giggs banned from the match following the alleged elbowing of the defender Vadim Eyseev in the first leg in Moscow. However, Uefa has charged Giggs with improper conduct, which may see him suspended for some of Wales' group games should they make it to their first major tournament in 46 years.
The precedents are not encouraging. Alan Shearer was, last November, caught on camera elbowing Fabio Cannavaro during a Champions' League fixture between Newcastle and Internazionale, charged with improper conduct and banned for two matches. A similar sentence for Giggs could see him miss two-thirds of Wales' group games in the finals.
The Russians failed to send a video of the incident to Switzerland by the 5pm deadline yesterday, but submitted a clip by e-mail. Nevertheless, Uefa rules require the accused player to submit a written defence and there was insufficient time for Giggs to do this. His case will be heard by Uefa's control and discipline body on Thursday 4 December.
The reaction in Cardiff had relief mingling in with anger. Before the clash, Eyseev had driven into Giggs with the kind of tackle which his captain, Gary Speed, thought might have broken his leg and the Wales manager, Mark Hughes, suspected the Russian protests were designed to destabilise his own preparations.
The secretary-general of the Football Association of Wales, David Collins, said: "We are relieved that after a nerve-wracking afternoon, Ryan has been cleared to play against Russia but we are concerned he still faces a charge. We are very disappointed this case has come up at such a crucial time, on the day before the biggest game in Welsh football for many, many years but we will vigorously defend Ryan at the hearing."
For his manager, this is par for the course. At every turn of his journey to take Wales to Portugal, Hughes has had to face crises off the pitch before a ball was kicked on it. There were clashes with Birmingham over the availability of Robbie Savage before they went to Azerbaijan, bitter accusations by Newcastle that he was risking the long-term fitness of Craig Bellamy as they prepared to face the Italians at San Siro. There was a possibility their six points against Azerbaijan would be ruled worthless if Fifa carried out its threat to expel the Azeri FA and, to cap it all, the calling-off of their match in Belgrade because of the assassination of the Serbian prime-minister. And now there is the war of Giggs' elbow.
"It has not been an easy campaign by any stretch of the imagination," Hughes remarked with a footballer's talent for understatement. However, everyone connected with the Welsh team prayed it would be an ultimately triumphant one. If Wales have a reputation for falling at the final hurdles, then so do Russia, who since losing the final to the Netherlands in 1988, have failed even to qualify for a European Championship. Tonight they will be without their playmaker, Alexander Mostovoi, and their best goalkeeper, Sergei Ovchinnikov because of suspensions.
With all the tension in the air, Mostovoi was not inclined to smooth over matters. He claimed Saturday's game was the ugliest he had ever been involved in and remarked: "To win, we will have to tame those boors. Giggs and his fellow players started swearing at us from the first minute... abuse heaped on us from the dustbin. For me, the most unpleasant were Savage and Koumas. The Welsh could not expect anything other than a draw, so they used these dirty tricks."
The draw has given Wales an advantage, albeit a slender one. A score draw will see them eliminated. The danger is that the enmity between the two sides, fuelled by bad sportsmanship and worse tackles in Moscow, will create an elephant trap for Wales which requires patience and cool heads.
Hughes acknowledged, with a smile, that he is perhaps not the best person to ask for these qualities. He was suspended for the numbing defeat by Romania at the Arms Park that denied Wales a place in the 1994 World Cup finals after what he ruefully described as: "an over-enthusiastic tackle" against Cyprus when there were fewer than 20 seconds remaining.
"It is a case of doing what I say not what I did," he remarked before beginning the final preparations to a campaign which began 14 months ago with a Welsh side reckoned shortly beforehand to be just about the worst in history. "We have no rights to qualification. It is not a case that we have been so near in the past that it must be our turn now. Football doesn't work like that."
WALES (probable 4-1-4-1): Jones (Southampton), Delaney (Aston Villa), Gabbidon (Cardiff), Melville (Fulham), Barnard (Grimsby), Speed (Newcastle), Earnshaw (Cardiff), Koumas (West Bromwich), Savage (Birmingham), Giggs (Manchester United), Hartson (Celtic).
RUSSIA (probable 4-4-2): Malafeyev (Zenit St Petersburg), Eyseev (Lokomotiv Moscow), Ignashevich (Lokomotiv), Onopko (Spartak Alania), Sennikov (Zenit St Petersburg), Loskov (Lokomotiv), Smertin (Porstmouth), Titov (Spartak Moscow), Alenichev (Porto), Kerzhakov (Zenit), Bulykin (Moscow Dynamo).
Referee: M Gonzalez (Spain).Reuse content