A day in Cymru history as Bale makes his mark on the world stage
The 64-year wait to witness Cymru at the World Cup finally came to an end on Monday evening.
The fans went through a range of emotions in 1-1 draw against the United States at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium but it was captain Gareth Bale who earned his side a point from the penalty spot to mark another moment in Welsh football history.
For months the build-up centred around the emotion of the achievement, remembering the heroes of 1958 and the generations of talented players who failed to make it to the world stage during their own illustrious careers. The stare from captain Gareth Bale as he stood in the tunnel was more intense than usual. For all that he has achieved for club and country, this was the pinnacle. This simply meant more.
A impassioned rendition of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau set the tone for the occasion but it was the United States that dominated the early exchanges. The impressive and influential Christian Pulisic was allowed too much space, and having been the main cause of concern for Rob Page he turned provider for Timothy Weah to open the scoring. Cymru struggled to force any meaningful pressure, and the emotion of the occasion quickly turned to frustration as the United States maintained control of the game.
Reaching Qatar was the final chapter in a long story for Cymru. The history behind the rise and the individuals who made it possible is well-documented and has almost been played on repeat in the build-up to the finals. For Page and his squad, landing in Doha last week meant it was time to pass the emotion of the occasion over to the Red Wall and focus on the football, but armband controversy on the morning of the match threatened to further sour what has already become a bitter-tasting tournament for many.
But Cymru are not tourists on the big stage. Page and his squad qualified for the World Cup on merit and arrived confident of making an impression and qualifying from a difficult and competitive group. England had exposed the frailties of Iran earlier in the afternoon, and Cymru will know that they will be considered favourites when they meet them on Friday. Tactically, Cymru lined-up against the United States in a familiar formation and with a system that has been successful, but technically they looked a shadow of the team that competed so well to make it trough the qualifying campaign.
The half-time introduction of Kieffer Moore for Dan James offered Cymru an additional physical presence and a different option in attack, and the change visibly lifted a team that were under no illusions that a big decision was needed to reverse what had been a difficult opening half. With the scoreline very much in the balance, Page's bold move showed how much he has grown into the role over the course of the last two years. Cymru had no answer against Denmark at the last EURO finals, but this team, and this manager, have learned lessons from the past.
Ben Davies and Moore both came close to equalising with two headers midway through the second half. A goal would have been deserved. Attacking a wall of red shirts and bucket hats, this was what the occasion was supposed to feel like. This was what we had waited so long for. Penalty. Gareth Bale steps and converts from the spot with ten minutes remaining. The momentum, adrenaline and noise made the opening half a distant memory. Cymru were now going for the win, but eventually settled for a deserved draw.
“We showed character and determination to come back and get a point out of the game,” explained manager Rob Page to ITV Sport at the final whistle. “It's important at the start of a tournament that you don't lose, so credit to the lads for the shift they put in to get that point. The medical team have quite a bit of work to do and a big job to get us all ready for Friday. To see the Red Wall there and all the supporters enjoying it, it's incredible.”
Bale highlighted in his own post-match interview that it was Page's half-time talk that made a significant contribution to the turnaround in performance between the two halves. Iran will pose a different type of challenge on Friday morning, and their manager Carlos Queiroz will demand more from his players after they limped through a six goal defeat to England. Cymru must now assess their aches and bruises and maintain the confidence and belief that earned what could prove to be a crucial point.
The tournament that we have all waited for is finally underway and Cymru are undefeated after the opening game. The national anthem has been played on hundreds of millions of small and large screens across the world, and the Red Wall have celebrated a Gareth Bale goal on the biggest stage of all. This is the World Cup and Cymru have everything to play for. Enjoy the ride, there's much more to come.