Wales have been in the international wilderness since 1958 and once more a promised land full, not of milk and honey, but of Barclaycard endorsements and sponsorships from mobile-phone companies, has been denied them.
As they had in 1993, 1985 and 1977, Wales fell at the final hurdle in a match Mark Hughes' side never quite came to terms with, creating new ghosts to stalk a fresh qualifying campaign. A small European nation did succeed in struggling out of the shadow of a larger one to reach the European Championship via a play-off but it was Latvia, not Wales.
Hughes may feel this would be an appropriate time to take his leave. The Wales manager, whose transformation of football in the principality has made him a much-coveted figure, did nothing to deflect the speculation. "I am contracted through to the 2006 World Cup but circumstances have changed after this evening," he said, his voice laden with emotion. "The fact is we have not qualified and people may have something to say about that. My job is to get Wales to major championships and I've failed twice."
It is inconceivable he would be sacked, but Hughes may be paving the way for resignation. Everywhere in Cardiff the atmosphere was one of resignation. Only John Hartson lingered after the final whistle to applaud the Welsh fans who have come to watch their team in greater numbers than any other nation involved in the campaign to qualify for the European Championship.
Vadim Evseev now occupies the kind of place in Welsh footballing folklore reserved for the likes of Joe Jordan, whose handball cost them a place in the 1978 World Cup finals and that was before he scored. Evseev's thuggish tackle on Ryan Giggs in Moscow and his theatrics when the Welshman's elbow was thrust in his face ensured that his every movement was howled down. However, the Lokomotiv Moscow defender is no mean player and with the game 22 minutes old he thrust a dagger into the heart of Welsh ambitions.
Rolan Gusev's free-kick was poorly defended and Evseev was first to meet it, directing his header downwards. It flew under the crook of Paul Jones' arm and as the net billowed to receive the ball, the balance of the tie altered completely. The goalless draw in the first leg had been hard-fought but now the Welsh had to score twice. They had three real chances to do so, the last a header from Gary Speed that flashed past the post, the best when Giggs struck the post three minutes before half-time, but Hughes admitted frankly that Wales never at any stage approached the level of performance they had shown in Moscow.
Hughes probably erred by not selecting Robert Earnshaw from the start. He had to win the match and the formation he sent out was overly defensive, leaving John Hartson too isolated up front. He argued that Wales needed a solid base to absorb Russian pressure in the opening 20 minutes, erroneously believing that they would tire. Earnshaw was introduced in the 58th minute with Giggs pushed into a more aggressive role. Even then, the Cardiff striker was not used as an out-and-out attacker.
As those who saw Paul Bodin's penalty against Romania at the Arms Park a decade ago could testify, the woodwork has often had a crucial role in matches Wales had to win. In 1993 it was the crossbar, last night it was the post, the foot of which was struck by Giggs' toe-poke. If he was to miss matches in the finals because of suspension, Giggs might have taken inspiration from Roy Keane in 1999 driving Manchester United to a European Cup final he would miss. Mostly, though, Evseev had the better of him.
With time running away and emotions running over, Hughes had no choice but to demand a more direct approach from his team and within minutes of the restart it began to pay dividends, although nobody ran at the Russian defence, and the best save of the second half was made by Jones.
This, Hughes had said, would be a game that would shape careers but ultimately it would end the international ones of several of his players. Speed, who had thought when denied a place in the 1994 World Cup that there would be other finals, must have greeted the last whistle in the knowledge that now there would never be any. Bravely though he, Andy Melville and others had fought throughout a sometimes remarkable campaign, the cruel fact is that in football there is no such thing as heroic failure. There is only failure.
Wales 0 Russia 1
Half-time: 0-1 Att: 73,062 Aggregate score: 0-1
WALES (4-2-3-1): Jones (Southampton); Delaney (Aston Villa), Gabbidon (Cardiff), Melville (Fulham), Barnard (Grimsby); Speed (Newcastle), Johnson (West Bromwich); Koumas (West Bromwich), Savage (Birmingham), Giggs (Manchester United); Hartson (Celtic). Substitutes: Earnshaw (Cardiff) for Johnson, 58; Blake (Wolverhampton Wanderers) for Koumas, 74.
RUSSIA (4-4-2): Malafeev (Zenit St Petersburg); Evseev (Lokomotiv Moscow), Ignashevich (Lokomotiv), Onopko (Spartak Alania), Sennikov (Zenit St Petersburg); Gusev (CSKA Moscow), Smertin (Porstmouth), Titov (Spartak Moscow), Alenichev (Porto); Izmailov (Lokomotiv), Bulykin (Moscow Dynamo). Substitutes: Radimov (Zenit) for Titov, 59;
Referee: M.Gonzalez (Spain).Reuse content