Bread of heaven, bread of heaven, dip me in curry sauce and serve me with half rice, half chips, the unthinkable has happened. To the exultant sound of hymns and arias reverberating up and down the Valleys, for the first time in the long, glorious history of the Fifa Coca-Cola World Rankings, Wales have risen above England.
Some will always doubt the veracity of Fifa’s official ranking system – the same weary old cynics who suggest an organisation with a billion dollars in its bank account should have had access to the Qatari weather forecast. But anyone who saw any of England’s 180 minutes of competitive football at last summer’s World Cup knew full well they were witnessing the 10th best nation on the planet, and Welsh fans know you don’t hold Bosnia-Herzegovina to a gritty 0-0 draw at home without being one full increment better at ninth.
The table does not lie. Yet another mass Premier League influx of top Icelandic talent this summer confirms that nation’s rightful footing immediately above France at 23rd and 24th respectively. There are those who will tell you Iceland’s sole meaningful contribution to football in the last 10 years was a volcanic ash cloud that prevented Robert Lewandowski signing for Blackburn Rovers, the only time Sam Allardyce has been denied the aerial route. Do not listen to such people.
That Wales’ extraordinary rise from 117th to ninth in the space of three years should coincide with a slight rejigging of the format of the European Championship to the extent that San Marino can now afford to blood a few new promising young carpet-fitters on the right side of defence and still expect to make the knockout stage is entirely beside the point.
The Welsh have already imagined this league table triumph over England as another chapter in a grand sporting rivalry, but the truth is they would have to invent one first. Had the sheikhs not arrived to spoil the analogy, Wales v England is a story similar to Manchester City and United – a loathing that only really goes one way.
Sports fans have a tendency towards masochism. England like to imagine the Germans or the Argentines as their great footballing rivals. It’s generous of either nation to indulge us. One thing you have to admire the Australians for is that their 25 straight years of pummelling the English at cricket never appeared to get any less enjoyable for them. That is England’s great misfortune.
Having invented most major sports and then colonised most of the rest of the world in order to play against them, it finds itself uniquely loathed by most of its opposition.
It’s less than two weeks until England must host the Rugby World Cup and in the form of Wales and Australia face two very equally matched teams who will take far more joy from beating them than they will each other.
In 1977, the Welsh fly-half Phil Bennett rather famously ended his pre-match team talk with the words: “Look what these bastards have done to Wales. They’ve taken our coal, our water, our steel. They buy our homes and only live in them for a fortnight every year. What have they given us? Absolutely nothing. We’ve been exploited, raped, controlled and punished by the English – and that’s who you are playing this afternoon.”
Which is precisely why this sudden blooming of the Welsh football daffodil – which will not last – should be treated differently. In nine months from now, it is all but certain that a small but vocal nation somewhere to the left of Bristol will get what for most will be its first taste in more than 50 years of something that, for all its overbearing disappointment, is still rather magical: major tournament football.
Whatever happens, they will enjoy it. Expectations, even of the ninth best team in the world, will not be high. Not like they will for the 10th. And following the inevitable first-round exits for both will come a great opportunity to sort out a bureaucratic sporting anomaly that should have happened decades ago. Wales: are you sure you wouldn’t rather throw in your lot with England?
It might sound horrifying, but you don’t really object in principle. Otherwise, who were all those people at the Cardiff Test match? Only the most bloody-minded among you have any real objection to Simon Jones winning the 2005 Ashes. The rugby, granted, is a special case, you can keep that, but you’d have to concede you would not be compromising much of a proud football heritage by letting Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey have a proper crack at a World Cup. We dutifully pay £6.50 per carload to come into your country and it’s time we got something back. You might even enjoy it.
The merger is already happening anyway. In the long decades of argument over whether Celtic and Rangers might be allowed to join the Premier League, arriving almost unnoticed at first were Swansea and Cardiff, and we’ve been pretty reasonable about that too.
As things stand, you are the senior partner in all this. You are bringing “Guide Me O Thou Great Redeemer” and the world’s most expensive footballer to the negotiating table. All we’ve got is “God Save The Queen” and Jamie Vardy. At least just think about it. This offer won’t be on the table for ever.Reuse content