Qatar 2022 will see Wales make their first World Cup finals appearance since 1958 after a hard-fought victory over Ukraine on an emotional night in Cardiff. An unfortunate own goal by Andriy Yarmolenko and a superb performance from goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey saw the Ukrainian dream end in heartbreak, with the players from the war-torn country being applauded from all four sides of the stadium as they trudged off the pitch. They had been the slightly better side on the day, but were desperately unlucky not to score.
Before the game, reports emerged that in the visitors’ dressing room the players had displayed a Ukrainian flag scribbled with handwritten messages from soldiers on the frontline. The team also took to the pitch and sang their national anthem while draped in flags. To power them, they had the prayers of their countrymen, a wave of goodwill from around the world and the experience of a fine victory over Scotland in the previous round.
The Welsh were also not lacking in the poignancy department. This was the final chance for the likes of Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey to grace the World Cup stage. The raucous home fans who packed the Cardiff City Stadium to the rafters were likewise dreaming of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Aided by singer Dafydd Iwan’s stirring folk song before kick-off, they filled the stadium with a wall of noise.
Just three minutes after the first whistle, Ukraine had the ball in the Welsh net. Oleksandr Zinchenko fooled Hennessey with a quick free-kick. But referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz decided it was too quick and pulled play back. The retake was easily caught by a relieved Hennessey.
The visitors continued in the same vein, creating chances with ease. Roman Yaremchuk beat the offside trap but not the keeper, who got down well to save one-on-one. Both Oleksandr Karavaev and Zinchenko then had shots blocked by Welsh defenders.
With their brief spells of possession, Wales mainly looked to test Georgiy Bushchan, who had looked suspect in goal against Scotland, with crosses into the box. These had the keeper flapping at times, but the final Welsh touch never came. Bale’s first shot, from 35 yards out, was always flying high and wide.
But his next shot proved match-turning. In the 34th minute, after Dan James won a free kick 25 yards out to the left, Bale sent in a vicious ball across goal which was headed into his own net by Yarmolenko. The Ukraine captain stooped low as he went for the clearing header but was undone by the pace on the ball.
His team then stepped up the tempo in search of an equaliser before half-time. Yarmolenko himself looked like he had been clipped in the box by Joe Allen in the 40th minute, but VAR ruled against Oleksandr Petrakov’s team.
Wales had the first big chance 10 minutes after halftime. Some great work by James and Kieffer Moore on the counter was undone by an awful finish from Ramsey from 12 yards out. A few minutes later, Ukraine should have been level. From a low cross by Vitaliy Mykolenko, Viktor Tsygankov slid a shot on goal that was blocked by Hennessey’s feet. Yaremchuk sent the rebound badly wide.
On the hour mark, Yarmolenko had the chance for a tap-in from about eight yards but was denied by an outstanding last-ditch tackle from Ben Davies, who was excellent throughout. Ukraine continued to dominate, Ruslan Malinovskiy sending a 25 yard rocket just wide. Davies then put in another great block to stop an attack.
In the 75th minute, Robert Page’s side almost settled the tie. Connor Roberts lifted a cross to the far post where the substitute Brennan Johnson was waiting, but his shot came back off the post. Bale was then set up by Ramsey but sidefooted straight at Bushchan. Down the other end, Davies brilliantly blocked another shot by Yarmolenko.
The visitors were now getting desperate. Several long-range shots were easily repelled by Hennessey. But the keeper had to stretch himself five minutes from time, brilliantly clawing out a top-corner header from Artem Dovbyk. With Ukraine continuing to throw the kitchen sink at them, Neco Williams threw his body on the line one last time to keep out Yarmolenko.
There were scenes of sheer jubilation at the final whistle. Bale showed his class by going up and consoling as many players in blue shirts as he could. He then joined the rest of his squad as they surged forward en masse and slid on their torsos in front of the “Red Wall”of fans. The coach Robert Page beat his chest, Connor Roberts repeatedly punched the air in disbelief, Ramsey clutched his son in his arms and Dan James gave a piggyback ride to a staff member.
Wales had grabbed the final European slot at the Qatar World Cup, joining Iran, USA and neighbours England in Group B. After their debut appearance in 1958, when they were knocked out in the quarterfinals by a goal from a teenager named Pele, they had suffered a series of painful near-misses in qualification over the decades. It made this night, and the result, one of the greatest in the history of Welsh football. “It’s an incredible feeling. I’m so proud of the players, and the supporters. From the first minute, they were magnificent,” beamed Wales manager Robert Page.
But the final word must go to the Ukrainian team. Their manager Oleksandr Petrakov stated that they had done everything they could, and he couldn’t have been more right. Although they fell just short of the final hurdle, the players’ efforts were widely appreciated back home. In the midst of a war, they had provided a little light to their countrymen. But sometimes even football, the great distractor, must take a backseat in the face of much more serious matters.