Terry Medwin turned 90 a couple of months ago and has lived more than two-thirds of a long life with the distinction of being Wales’s last scorer in a World Cup. Not any more. As the sound of “Viva Gareth Bale” echoed around the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, a quintuple Champions League winner had added something he will prize more than many of his other achievements: a World Cup goal.
It was a goal that meant plenty, too, and not merely emotionally. Until he dispatched a penalty past Matt Turner, the United States were deservedly ahead, seemingly favourites, along with England, for a place in the last 16. Yet Wales can be characterised by dogged resistance and a refusal to give up. Fittingly, their old firm came to their rescue in their belated World Cup debuts: Aaron Ramsey fed Bale and Walker Zimmerman crunched into the veteran. The pressure was tangible but Bale drilled in his spotkick and, for the first time since 1958, Wales had a point at the World Cup. After six decades away, they had something to show for their return.
Perhaps typically, they did it the hard way. The harsh truth may be that Rob Page got his team selection wrong. Wales’s first half was so anti-climactic they may have been fortunate to only be a goal down. Yet the manager merits credit for the turnaround, and if one game-changer was Bale, another was the man who has made his way from Truro City to the World Cup, in the influential substitute Kieffer Moore. The giant target man with the lowly origins made a huge difference.
And, by the end, it meant the last three goals in Wales’s World Cup games had been scored by three of the great footballing names: Pele, Weah and Bale. Admittedly, the Weah in question was not the Ballon d’Or winner George but his son Timothy. That the president of Liberia’s son scored for the United States could sound implausible but Weah junior has a distinction his father lacks: he played for Paris Saint-Germain and AC Milan, but never in a World Cup and his Brooklyn-born son scored a goal that the United States may feel ought to have brought them victory.
Certainly they were vastly superior before the break. The United States had lowered expectations with decidedly unconvincing performances in recent games but a squad brimming with potency showed their talent and their physical power. Christian Pulisic sparkled with the ball at his feet and his country’s hopes on his shoulders; “Captain America” relished the responsibility.
He was the instigator of the breakthrough. Pulisic had the dynamism to dart forward, surging through the midfield and supplying the defence-splitting pass. Weah angled his run from the right perfectly to nudge a shot past Wayne Hennessey.
A goal could have come sooner. Wales had two reprieves in the space of seconds as Joe Rodon’s header thudded back off Hennessey’s chest and then Josh Sargent clipped the post.
Meanwhile, Wales made such a subdued start that, between them, Bale, Ramsey, Dan James and Harry Wilson mustered a mere 10 touches in the first 25 minutes. While Page’s 5-3-2 formation ceded possession to the United States, one of the youngest teams in the tournament also had the energy and commitment to pressing to pin Wales in.
The greatest mistake was omitting Moore, depriving Wales of a focal point in attack. By the time he came on at the break, Wales were deservedly behind. They improved after his introduction: an eclectic CV that features Dorchester, Yeovil and Viking now also includes a telling cameo on the global stage.
He gave Wales an aerial threat. Turner made an acrobatic save to tip Ben Davies’s header over. Moore met a corner with a header that cleared the bar. Page gambled on attack and Brennan Johnson, who came on when 1-0 down, could have won it on the break.
Nevertheless, after six decades away, Wales still had plenty to celebrate. Yma O Hyd, the anthem that is testament to the staying power in the face of adversity, reverberated around a designer stadium, sung in an ancient language few of the global audience would understand, but with the sense of Welsh pride apparent to all. Unlike some at this World Cup, it was a game with an atmosphere, albeit interrupted by nervous silences.
And at the end the country of three million had held the superpower of 300 million. Wales had defied the odds, in more ways than one.
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