A busy year for the Cymru men’s national team ended on a high as the draw for the 2022 FIFA World Cup play-offs handed Rob Page’s side a home draw against Austria with the reward for victory a second home fixture against Scotland or Ukraine for a place at the finals in Qatar.
Although the World Cup would be the primary focus in the second half of 2021, attentions were very much fixed on the UEFA EURO finals earlier in the year as the tournament finally took place 12 months later than originally planned due to the pandemic. Although Cymru were eliminated in the Round of 16, there were some memorable moments, while captain Gareth Bale would achieve his own personal international milestone as he made his 100th appearance for his country in November, joining Chris Gunter in the 100 club.
UEFA EURO 2020
Cymru were based in Baku for their opening two games in Group A as the tournament began in the Azerbaijani capital with a tough test against Switzerland. Breel Embolo opened the scoring for the Swiss early in the second half, but with the backing of a small number of the Red Wall who made the long journey in difficult circumstances, Cymru levelled the score on 74 minutes when Kieffer Moore headed home a cross from Joe Morrell to make it an encouraging start for Rob Page’s side.
A large contingent of Turkish fans were present in the Olympic Stadium for Cymru’s second group match, but it was Page’s side that silenced the crowd as Aaron Ramsey put his side ahead just before half-time with an impressive finish. Gareth Bale surprisingly wasted the opportunity to double the lead when his penalty cleared the crossbar, but Connor Roberts made the game safe deep into injury-time when he combined with Bale to complete the scoring.
Cymru’s chances of qualifying for the knock-out stages were in the balance as they headed to the Stadio Olimpico to take on Italy in Rome. Despite a brave effort against the hosts, Italy claimed a 1-0 win through a goal from Matteo Pessina while Ethan Ampadu was shown a red card, but as they could not extend their lead it was Cymru that shared in the celebrations at the final whistle as the result secured second place on goal difference.
However, the tournament would come to an end for Cymru in Amsterdam a few days later as Denmark claimed a convincing 4-0 victory in the Round of 16. There was controversy over the second goal as Moore appeared to be fouled in the build-up, while substitute Harry Wilson was sent off as the frustrations became more and more apparent with the game becoming increasingly out of reach.
Despite the disappointment of exiting the tournament and manner of the defeat, Cymru can look back with pride at qualifying for a second successive EURO finals and once again progressing through what was a difficult group. The logistical challenges of travelling between Baku, Rome and Amsterdam in a short space of time also took its toll on the squad, while the restrictions imposed on the Red Wall meant that their vital support was not in their corner when the side needed them the most.
Cymru also played a series of friendlies in 2021 in addition to a hectic year of competitive international fixtures. The first of which took place against Mexico at the Cardiff City Stadium when Kieffer Moore scored the only goal of the game after 11 minutes as Christ Gunter became the first men’s international to reach 100 caps. The side then played two warm-up games ahead of the EURO finals as France claimed a 3-0 victory in Nice before Cymru and Albania played out a 0-0 draw in Cardiff. The latter was significant for the fact that a limited number of fans were finally allowed into the stadium for the first time since November 2019. In the final friendly of the year, Cymru were held to a 0-0 draw against Finland in Helsinki in September prior to their return to World Cup qualifying.
World Cup Qualifiers
Although the focus at the start of the year was very much on the EURO finals, Cymru would also start their 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign in March with a difficult away fixture against group favourites Belgium. Harry Wilson surprisingly put Cymru ahead with a superb early goal in Leuven, but Roberto Martinez’s side responded through goals from Kevin De Bruyne, Thorgan Hazard and a penalty from Romelu Lukaku. Despite the setback, Cymru responded in style a few days later as Daniel James scored the only goal against the Czech Republic in Cardiff to earn his side a 1-0 win.
By the time that the qualifying campaign resumed in September, the EURO finals were a distant memory, and there was drama in the Russian city of Kazan as Gareth Bale completed his hat-trick against Belarus in injury-time to earn his side a crucial 3-2 victory. It was Bale’s second hat-trick for his country and came courtesy of two penalties to compensate for the one he missed against Turkey in Baku a few months before.
A frustrating 0-0 draw against Estonia in Cardiff followed a few days later to put pressure on Cymru ahead of the October fixture against the Czech Republic in Prague. Aaron Ramsey put the side ahead, but the home responded to take lead before Daniel James salvaged a point in a 2-2 draw. An early goal from Kieffer Moore in Tallinn would prove to be enough to claim a 1-0 victory over Estonia, leaving the coveted runners-up place in Group E in Cymru’s hands ahead of a November double-header against Belarus and group leaders Belgium in Cardiff.
With the Red Wall in fine voice, Cymru took an early lead against Belarus through Ramsey before Neco Williams doubled the lead. Ramsey converted a third from the penalty spot in the opening minutes of the second half and further goals from Ben Davies and Connor Roberts completed a resounding 5-1 win. The match was also significant in that Bale become the latest Cymru centurion as he made his 100th international appearance.
“It has been an incredible journey and one that started very young,” said Bale ahead of the match. “To get 100 caps will be personally be an incredible achievement and one you never think about when you start our. We have been through the lows when I first joined to grow Welsh football, to try to put it on the right path and inspire the generations coming through. We have all bought into it – the fans, the team, the staff – and every manager has bought in to the same philosophy that we want to push Welsh football as far as we can. We have done a great job and hopefully there is more to come.”
Following the successful UEFA Nations League campaign, Cymru were guaranteed a World Cup play-off place regardless of their final group position, but if they could seal the runners-up place it would guarantee a much more advantageous draw. Requiring a point against Belgium, the visitors took the lead through De Bruyne in the opening half, but an equaliser from Moore on 32 minutes would prove crucial as Rob Page’s side held on to secure second place.
Attentions now turn to March 2022 and the crucial World Cup play-off against Austria at the Cardiff City Stadium. Cymru are guaranteed home advantage against either Scotland or Ukraine should they successfully navigate their way through that initial test. Undefeated in their last 16 home games, Page’s side will be confident of taking on any opponent with the Red Wall behind them, and the prize of World Cup qualification is very much there for the taking.