They came to Cardiff bearing blue and yellow flags with assorted messages: from the names of devastated home towns and simple words in support of their army, to the more pointed ‘Russian war ship go f*ck yourself’. They wore traditional dress and included the very young and the old. They chanted the names of Ukrainian places widely known because of harrowing news stories, one being ‘Azovstal! Azovstal!’ They came harbouring the precious distracting dream of FIFA World Cup 2022 qualification, and gave fierce support to their footballers. Those footballers responded and fought hard.
For at least a third of the game, Ukraine were clearly the better side, commanding possession and creating chances. Their hosts had barely a sniff before the moment they won an ominous free kick at the edge of the penalty area.
As so often in the big games of recent years, Wales received the priceless rub of the green this ground usually gives them. Bale, kick, panic, flick, goal: red wall roar.
Still, Ukraine came back at them. Chaotic goalmouth scramble after scramble, the rain-lashed net behind the Wales goalkeeper denied the will of the Ukrainian people, refusing to bulge. Time ticked on into the second half. Ukrainian energy, imagination and creativity faded. No way through the unsympathetic lines of defensive red, expertly marshalled by Ben Davies.
The full time whistle prompted now familiar scenes of Welsh celebration, alongside heartbreakingly familiar Ukrainian despair – too much for one young boy behind me, who had to be led away from the still packed stands, in uncontrollable tears. But there was no instant exodus of Ukrainian fans at full-time. Even in the scrappiest defeat, they stayed. They accepted the applause of their players, and some of their soaking match shirts, they accepted the applause of the Wales squad and the Wales supporters, they stayed to sadly watch the gleefully cavorting Welsh people. At the end of a flag-frenzied platinum jubilee weekend, they demonstrated a uniquely defiant national pride.
This was Cardiff City Stadium as we’ve come to expect it for the big games. Not a single spare seat, striped bucket hats stretching out as far as the eye can see, barely a moment without stirring song or booming noise. Perhaps a few more faces in the stands. First Minister Mark Drakeford alongside new FAW chief executive Noel Mooney, neither appearing convincingly like they wanted to be in that seat, right there. Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price alongside former Wales women captain, academic, political commentator and general Welsh doyenne, Laura McAllister. The seemingly big game omnipresent Ian Rush. The stage was predictably set and the man in the lead role duly delivered, as he tends to. Him, Bale, yet again, almost boringly.
It wasn’t without scares and bumps, hold-your-breath mayhem scrambles, point-blank blocks and last ditch challenges in torrential, leg-breakingly precarious conditions. It was never pretty. Sometimes, when a side has had a successful run at home like Wales have had a successful run at home, the luck can suddenly desert you. And there will come a time that it does. But not tonight. They somehow snuck ahead with a large slice of fortune, and made damn sure they stayed there. This was no time for charitable giving, even against Ukraine.
Now the red wall is bound for Qatar, and its first FIFA World Cup since 1958. Llongyfarchiadau, Cymru. Congratulations, Wales.
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