Sport Book Review: Wales fall to a 17-year hitch
Sunday 21 February 1999
At the risk of sending serious shock-waves through the valleys of Abergavenny, the truth about Wales' solitary appearance in the World Cup finals can now be revealed. They were lucky to be there at all.
After an indifferent qualifying campaign, which included defeats at the hands of East Germany and Czechoslovakia, Wales finished second in their group and failed to make it to Sweden in 1958. But then, in a fortunate twist of fate, football's world governing body Fifa decided that Israel, who had qualified by default because all three of their Arab opponents had refused to play them, should face one of the second-placed European teams in a two-leg play-off.
Following a draw in Zurich, Wales were the team pulled-out of the hat. They duly went on to defeat Israel 2-0 both at home and away, and secured the final berth in the tournament. This whole episode in Welsh sporting history is truly fascinating. It also serves as a perfect introduction to Mario Risoli's book (Ashley Drake, 01222 522229, pounds 10 paperback ).
It recounts the valiant Welsh assault on the 1958 World Cup. Mixing factual evidence with newsy match reports and quotes from the players, Risoli has worked hard to make what is ostensibly a World Cup diary - though neither a controversial or contemporary one - seem interesting. And it is.
Broken down into 12 chapters, and covering a manageable 150 pages, the book concentrates more on the human and historical aspects of the Welsh team, rather than the more predictable sporting side. Great time and detail is given to the manager, Jimmy Murphy, who was Matt Busby's No 2 at Manchester United throughout his career, and succeeded where Kevin Keegan hopes to: that is in managing a national team on a part-time basis.
It was the year of the Munich Air Disaster. For Murphy, a United man through and through, the shock was immense. His pain and courage in dealing with the aftermath of the tragedy are described touchingly, and the generosity of his character is all-apparent. "He was hard when he had to be but he could also be very soft. As long as you gave your best on the pitch he didn't mind about anything else," Terry Medwin, one of the players, said in the summer of 1998.
During the tournament itself the Welsh drew all three of their group matches, but reached the quarter-finals via yet another play-off match against the Hungarians. They won 2-1 and went on to face Brazil in the last eight.
Against all the odds, Wales hung on until the 73rd minute, when a 17- year-old called Edson Arantes do Nascimento scored a brilliant individual winning goal. Wales were out and have yet to grace the world's biggest football stage again.
As with the rest of the book, the author is careful not to be melodramatic and over-analytical about the results. Instead, he utilises quotes from the 17 players that he interviewed for the book. This way, the reader is given a first-hand account of Welsh feelings and reactions, not a second- hand guess.
Devoid of any hype and self- promotion, this World Cup diary is genuinely enjoyable. You feel close to the players and manager. It may be scant consolation now, but at least Wales were beaten by the greatest ever, Pele.
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