Wales had waited 64 years to play at a World Cup and ended up getting knocked out by England. That stings.
It was not the conclusion Wales wanted – and certainly not the one suggested by their Torquay-born striker Kieffer Moore who had advocated the very opposite before Robert Page’s squad left for Qatar – but it should not take away from the achievement of ending their long wait for a World Cup finals appearance.
After Tuesday’s 3-0 defeat to England, Wales are heading home with no wins, one point and one goal to their name.
They are not great figures but the remaining members of the ‘Golden Generation’ – who led Wales into the semi-finals of Euro 2016 – had slipped beyond their best before the 2022 World Cup.
But that should not detract from Wales being in Doha in the first place, and the wonderful achievement of qualifying in itself. Take out hosts Qatar, who qualified automatically as hosts, and Wales are the smallest country here.
Group rivals England, Iran and the United States have a combined population of 472 million to Wales’ 3.1m.
Of course, Wales wanted to do better in Qatar and many will believe they should have.
The players have under-achieved and come in for fierce criticism, so too Page’s tactics and selection calls that were baffling at times. The debrief will be interesting.
But Wales have suffered too many painful failures since losing a 1958 quarter-final to Brazil to be completely despondent.
The romantic journey to the World Cup became more about football, it lifted a nation that now appears more at ease with its culture, history and language.
As has been so often the case, Wales’ captain and talisman Gareth Bale carried them to Qatar with play-off-winning goals against Austria and Ukraine. Bale scored Wales’ solitary World Cup goal – a late penalty in the 1-1 draw against the USA – but did not have the tournament he had dreamed about.
Now 33, Bale says he has no thoughts of retiring from international football and the start of Euro 2024 qualifying is less than four months away. But Bale is not the force of old, the man whose lung-busting runs made him one of the most feared forwards of his generation.
This was a particularly low point in his fall from being world-class. He lasted just 45 minutes after seven touches and one completed pass. Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen, both named in the Euro 2016 team of the tournament, are also 30-somethings and one must wonder how many more mountains they can climb.
Page went for tried and trusted individuals as Wales sought a first victory over their neighbours for 38 years. A four-goal win would have guaranteed Wales a round of 16 place, something they had not achieved against England in 103 games between the two countries.
More realistically, they needed to win and Iran and the USA to draw to progress. The big change saw Page shelve his preferred 3-4-3 system for 4-2-3-1 with Allen and Ethan Ampadu holding the midfield. But England dominated possession and completed 322 first-half passes to Wales’ 90.
Danny Ward rushed from his goal smartly after 10 minutes to deny Marcus Rashford and Wales had few scares before the break.
But there was nothing to get excited about at the other end and USA taking the lead against Iran was unwelcome news.
Bale did not reappear for the second half, and Wales’ World Cup hopes were over within seven minutes as Rashford smashed home a free-kick and Phil Foden pounced from close range. Rashford then added another before the end.
After the final whistle the players lined up in front of the so-called ‘Red Wall’, who belted out the National Anthem and ‘Viva Gareth Bale’. The fans still love their team.
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