Wales: episode 2
Wales and the Slovakoczechs both beat Cyprus during October, meaning that, come 17 November 1993 and the last pair of fixtures, any of the four contenders can still qualify for USA ’94. The drama is spread across several of the other UEFA qualification groups too, with eight places still up for grabs on the final night.
Italy would edge out Portugal; the Dutch would destroy England’s chances; the Republic of Ireland would sneak in on a bad-tempered evening in Belfast as Denmark’s dreams were crushed in Spain; France would complete a truly spectacular balls-up which will define the international career and certain interpersonal relationships of David Ginola for years to come.
At the Arms Park in Cardiff, in front of 40,000 people, the Welsh must beat Romania by two clear goals to be certain to qualify. A draw would suffice for the Romanians. And nobody needs reminding that the Dragons were five-nil down by half-time in Bucharest eighteen months earlier. While Wales are proudly undefeated at this ground since 1910, it should perhaps be acknowledged that they played elsewhere from 1911 to 1989. For the home side, Manchester United’s Mark Hughes is suspended, but they still have Liverpool’s moustachioed, milk-drinking, living legend Ian Rush up front alongside Dean Saunders of Aston Villa and Hughes’ teenage clubmate Ryan Giggs. The Welsh team is a familiar mix of the outstanding and the average, although only three of the starters are playing second division football and the rest – even without Hughes – are a pretty well-decorated bunch. Gary Speed, Giggs and Neville Southall all have English league titles under their belts; Eric Young, Southall and Saunders have won the FA Cup; Southall has lifted the Cup Winners’ Cup . And we ought to mention that Wales captain Barry Horne scored a famous goal at Porto in that competition in 1984, while playing for fourth-division Wrexham. Giggs is the most exciting young talent in the Premier League, starring for a team that will go on to win the Double; and Rush has two European Cup winners’ medals as well as five league championships, three FA Cups and a European Golden Boot. Rush also happens to be the top scorer in all of European qualification for USA ‘94, with eight goals – the same as Florin Răducioiu.
Romania line up as follows: Prunea – Petrescu, Prodan, Lupescu, Belodedici, Selymes – Sabău, Popescu, Hagi – Dumitrescu, Răducioiu. Five changes from the time they gave the Welsh a masterclass. Mercifully, it’s also a new outfit since the Faroese game, more like a yellow version of Adidas’ early-90s Liverpool kit with the thick diagonal shoulder stripes. Lupescu, “the Kaiser”, will be used as the spare man in central defence, as the Romanians prepare for the Welsh attacking threat.
The actual football match
There is a much better account of the game itself, and of the hype around it, on the Eurosport website. But you’re here now, so why not read on? The stadium roars with enthusiasm and encouragement every time a home player goes in hard for a challenge, which they do with great frequency: the Welsh are trying to impose themselves on their opponents. The pitch is horribly cut up. The visitors keep the ball well but are allowed no respite from the furious pace of the game; they struggle to create chances and are vulnerable to a counter-attack from the direct, aggressive and pacy Welsh.
Eleven minutes in, Petrescu has the best scoring chance of the early exchanges, hitting the post from close range after a Hagi shot is deflected across the area. Then Dumitrescu can’t provide the finish to cap a lively run. Giggs switches from left wing to right and back again and causes plenty of problems for the visiting defence, especially Belodedici. Melville heads wide from a corner. It is breathless stuff. Prunea gets (harshly) booked for time-wasting – after only twenty minutes. Petrescu fires a long shot over the bar following a crisp string of passes around the edge of the Welsh area.
After half an hour or so, just as it looks like the Romanians are managing to slow things down to a more comfortable pace, Hagi cuts inside off the right flank, leaves Horne for dead, and his long, low shot somehow scrambles under Southall’s body and into the net. One-nil!
Southall soon enough has a chance to make amends, denying Dumitrescu after he is put through by Răducioiu. Immediately Giggs goes rampaging forward down the other end. It’s that kind of game. Needing at least two goals now, Wales increase the stick-it-in-the-mixer quotient and Prunea has to pull off an acrobatic save from an Eric Young header. Another Melville header from a corner has to be nodded off the post. The teams go suck orange segments at one-nil.
Hagi has a go at his team during the break. “Hey, who are we? We’re better than them! Got it? We qualify!” Romania have the Welsh where they want them. They hold on to the ball at will, in that devious foreign way. At the end of a run through the middle, unchallenged but with no other options, Sabău sends a cheeky chip over the crossbar. Horne is sold a dummy by Lupescu and gets booked for supposedly clattering him, although the contact was slow and minimal. In his many spare hours while not getting into the Milan team, Răducioiu has clearly been practising falling over. The visitors’ passing game, with all its duplicitous continental tricks, is a familiar kind of torture for a blood-and-thunder British football team. Yorath, who stands to be out of a job in the morning if the team don’t qualify for the World Cup tonight, reorganises, replacing defender Kit Symons with midfielder Jeremy Goss, in fine form after his part in Norwich’s UEFA Cup win over Bayern Munich in October.
The unnervingly two-footed Hagi dances into the penalty area, kind of juggling the ball, but contrives to miss the target with his shot. A Giggs free-kick, curled in from the right, bounces around the area for a bit, off Saunders, Young and Speed. Then, suddenly, it’s in the net! Flicked in by Saunders! The equaliser! Ryan Giggs will later say of the Romanians at this point: “Their morale collapsed and I could see from their body language that they didn’t want to know.” Then, before you know it, Goss has put the ball into the centre for Speed, who first controls it brilliantly/accidentally, then goes down easily in the box under Petrescu’s apparent attempt to hold him back, and Wales have a penalty! The game has turned on its head in a couple of minutes!
One kick from glory
The penalty will be taken by Swindon Town left-back Paul Bodin, a reliable penalty taker who scored the winner from the spot when the Robins beat Leicester in the Division One play-off final at Wembley, six months earlier. The BBC coverage east of Offa’s Dyke switches, from England’s increasingly pointless game with San Marino, to Cardiff for this crucial moment. Iordănescu can’t watch. Neither can Daniel Timofte, probably. But Bodin’s firmly-struck kick hits the bar and rebounds back into play. The opportunity is gone. With half an hour still to go, Wales need just one goal, as it stands, because the Czovakoslechs are being held 0-0 by Belgium. The crowd are making a lot of noise in support of their team, singing I Can’t Take My Eyes Off You and Bread of Heaven. Giggs’ long-range effort bobbles agonisingly past Prunea’s left hand post. Dumitrescu runs through half the team but blasts over the bar. Rush, on the turn inside the box, shoots straight at Prunea.
Yorath rolls the dice once more: Bodin comes off for tea and sympathy, and striker Malcolm Allen is sent on. Again Romania squander a chance: Hagi dispossesses Young and crosses for the unmarked Răducioiu but somehow he side-foots wide from five yards. Straight up the other end, Prunea saves from Saunders, who is still a bundle of energy, picking up scraps while Rush and Allen both hold the ball up. Speed is filling in at left-back now, but comes up for a corner and heads wide. It’s all rather frenzied, and both sides are simply hanging on. Selymes makes way for Munteanu.
With ten minutes remaining, the tired Romanians do not take the opportunity to pump the ball into the box, looking for another goal to secure their position: they prefer to pass it short, frustrating their opponents and running the clock down. Hagi has pretty much given up staying on his feet when challenged. Munteanu’s cross breaks for Sabău, but Southall saves his shot. From a long Prunea goal-kick, Phillips seems to take a hit in the face. Then, after some aimless head tennis, Răducioiu wins the ball and passes back to Popescu. He gives it on to Dumitrescu, who skips past Goss and bamboozles Melville. Răducioiu is on the edge of the area, unmarked. Dumitrescu squares the ball to his team-mate. Young can’t close him down quickly enough. Răducioiu lets fly and Southall is beaten down low once more. Two-one to Romania! Răducioiu wheels away with a sub-Tardelli-cum-aeroplane impression.
There is still time for Horne to float in a wonderful pass, which Giggs gets on the end of ahead of Munteanu and Prunea, but the wing wizard can’t direct the ball with enough power or accuracy and Prodan is able to clear into the stand. A right-footed cross from Giggs almost falls nicely for Saunders to volley; almost, but not quite.
And before you know it, it’s over. Wales are out, and Romania have a place at the 1994 World Cup.
Tragically, 67-year-old Wales supporter John Hill dies shortly after the match, hit by a flare set off by other Welsh fans. This causes a bizarre episode at the airport when the Romanian delegation is departing for home: they are detained by police and photographed as part of the investigation into the fatality, and kept until 4am. The delay means that the crowd of thousands that has assembled at the airport in Bucharest has to disperse without welcoming their returning heroes home.
None of the Welsh squad will ever play at a major tournament, although young fringe squad player Chris Coleman will lead Wales’ next-but-one generation to the 2016 European Championship finals. Yorath, for his part, is unemployed as of the following day. Speed will have a spell coaching the national side before his sudden death in 2011. Giggs will become the most winningest footballer ever, without leaving Salford, in a spectacular playing career. He is currently Wales boss. Southall is now a Twitter celebrity. The match referee, Kurt Röthlisberger, will take the whistle for three matches at the World Cup, but will then be banned for life after being accused of match-fixing in 1996.
On the weekend of the 2017 Champions League final at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Ionuț Lupescu, now a UEFA official, arranges a reunion of the golden generation. Together the team-mates remember the momentous night twenty-four years earlier which would lead to their greatest days, across the Atlantic the following summer.
On 19 December 1993, at a glitzy ceremony in Las Vegas, the draw for the World Cup finals takes place. Robin Williams and Sepp Blatter’s unfunny-man/straight-man act on stage is, truly, something to behold. Romania’s group will comprise Switzerland, dark horses Colombia, and the hosts.
Hope is a strange force. Back home, all the talk is of a pyramid investment scheme that has ballooned from a one-man dodgy enterprise in Cluj, in cahoots with the city’s mayor, into a nationwide obsession. And it threatens to become a public order headache, as the authorities prepare for the inevitable collapse of the scheme, which supposedly offers returns of 800% on modest investment, at a time of rising prices and instability. But for now, let’s enjoy the anticipation of the greatest football show on earth…