Last month I photographed the Wales national football team’s final group qualification matches for the 2022 World Cup, against Belarus and Belgium.
The win and draw determined that Wales would have a home tie in the semi-final of their World Cup play-off against Austria in March 2022. And if they win that match, another home tie in their final play-off match, against Ukraine or Scotland.
There is a lot of football still to be played before travel arrangements can be made for the World Cup itself in Qatar in November and December 2022. But Wales now have an achievable path to getting there.
This match turned out to be a joyful celebration for Wales, a perhaps surprisingly comfortable night. Despite being without talisman Gareth Bale for the second half, as he recovered from injury on the occasion of his 100th cap, Wales looked well balanced and comfortable throughout. Aaron Ramsey, who has struggled for fitness and form himself in Italy with club side Juventus, here seemed comfortable and confident, scoring twice and commanding a lot of Wales’ best moments.
It was Ramsey who got Wales off to a flyer, pouncing on a rebound early to settle the nerves, before making it 3-0 from the penalty spot early in the second half. Between his strikes, Neco Williams scored a scruffy second, courtesy of some haphazard goalkeeping.
There were further goals for Ben Davies, a first for his country, and Connor Roberts. Roberts also entertained with a hilarious reaction to missing a better chance earlier in the match.
The goal of the game though, went to Belarus with an impressive late consolation strike.
An unusually light-hearted feeling for much of the game was reflected in an exchange I enjoyed with a fan close behind me. Right in front of us Daniel James swiped at the ball in the penalty area, under some pressure, and fell.
A loud fan behind me screamed for a penalty, confident it was more of a penalty than the one that had been awarded earlier. “Referee! Referee! What are you on?! How is that not a penalty?!” He was livid with the referee. “That was a definite penalty, wasn’t it?!” he seemed to ask in my direction. “Erm. Pretty sure it was an air kick,” I said, turning towards the fan and showing him the pictures on the back of my camera. The fan looked, then said “No penalty, everyone! Never a penalty! Well done ref!”
This was always going to be a very different contest against the highest ranked nation in the world. They had injuries, as had Wales who were without Bale. But they still had the highest quality, not least in captain, Kevin De Bruyne.
De Bruyne opened the scoring with an opportunistic, clinical swipe into the corner of the net from the edge of the box after a small amount of pinball. The Wales fans seemed to swallow hard, fearful of what would happen next. But their side reacted brilliantly.
Kieffer Moore responded shortly after with a clinical finish of his own to pull Wales level. From then on it was never comfortable. Wales had to defend hard for long spells, carving out chances when they could.
That play-off stage home advantage was on the line for them here. Keeping Belgium at bay really mattered, and you could see that through the fierce animation of Wales coach Robert Page, who later admitted he was ‘a blubbering wreck’ after the game, overwhelmed by what his players had already achieved.
Best of luck to Wales in the World Cup 2022 play-offs.
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