Pitch imperfect – UEFA vs. Wales
One week to go until Wales attempt to qualify for their first tournament since 1958, and the first time since the European Championships in 2004 that anybody believes they can actually do it. With Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen, Jonny Williams, Joe Ledley and the promising Emyr Huws to call on, the Welsh boast a midfield which is far superior to many in Europe.
Better still, the Red Dragons had finally been drawn in a group they could compete in, with Belgium almost certain to win it but a real chance of challenging Bosnia and Israel for second place, there is an optimism amongst Welsh supporters not seen since the heady days of the 2 – 1 victory over Italy in 2002. There is just one problem. With the first fixture of the campaign rapidly approaching, UEFA have still refused to release the details of where the fixture against Andorra will actually be played. The Andorrans have just opened a new stadium, but with rumours that the pitch is unfit to play on, there is talk of the game being moved to the home of Espanyol in Barcelona (130 miles away from Andorra) or even to Olympique Marseille (301 miles from Andorra). Of course, the 1250 Wales supporters with tickets for the game had already booked their flights, hotels and other forms of transportation required to get to Andorra (which does not have an airport), with many left worried about extra expenses, or even missing the game altogether.
This unusual fridge magnet found in Andorra reflects what UEFA did to Wales supporters
Meanwhile, the Andorran FA are doing their best impression of the Iraqi minister of defence, assuring everyone that the pitch would be completely fine in time for the game, and would pass all the relevant UEFA inspections with ease. Predictably, they failed the initial inspection later that day, with UEFA ruling that the ball moved too fast across the artificial surface. They were given one last chance to pass an inspection, with this coming just six days before the game would take place. It is hard to see UEFA allowing this to happen to England, Germany or Spain in the same situation, not wanting the outcry from the media to reduce their precious profits. But with little old Wales the opposition, the farce was allowed to rumble on and on.
Finally, the Wednesday before the game, it was announced that the game would indeed be held in Andorra on the new artificial pitch. Presumably UEFA had finally got their act together and ensured that the pitch would be of the high standard demanded by international quality players. Wales supporters could once again talk about their hopes of reaching France in 2016, rather than where the game would be played, if it would even go ahead at all. The legion of Wales fans arrived in Andorra, enjoying the perfect international away day combination of cheap beer, stunning scenery and sunshine.
Mountains and sticker hooliganism in Andorra
With the game kicking off at 20:45 local time, the Wales fans had consumed plenty of local beverages in the hours leading up to the campaign getting underway, leading to a great atmosphere full of optimism and excitement. The anthem was performed with plenty of passion, and the Andorran anthem danced along to and applauded. This atmosphere of positivity last exactly six minutes, when Andorra scored. Yes, the team ranked 199th in the world that had failed to score in the entire World Cup campaign were beating us 1 – 0. It was a soft foul by Neil Taylor, but a silly one to give away, especially against an opponent as limited as this. Hennessey was sent the wrong way by Ildefons Lima, followed by ecstatic celebrations from the red-shirted home players. If proof was needed as to the level of opposition we were facing, Lima is the penalty taker for Andorra and this was just his 8th goal in 88 caps.
A flag from my old friends at Barry Town United
In the pub before the game I had boldly declared to my regular Wales away companions that this was finally going to be the campaign we qualified, and here we were 1-0 down to a team that all had to be up for work in the morning. When it comes to being a Welsh football supporter, it seems wise to remember one of Homer Simpson’s best quotes – “Aim low, aim so low that when you achieve your goal, even you will be disappointed.”
As you would expect in such a situation, the atmosphere deflated pretty quickly. Angry chants were directed at UEFA, with every time the ball bounced proving that the pitch was totally unfit to be played on by players of this level. Huge clouds of black crumb would appear whenever the ball was kicked, and several Welsh players suffered slight injuries due to the farcical setting the game was being staged in. It was without question the most beautiful location for a stadium I have ever visited, with the worst setting to actually play the game in. Wales had trained just once on the surface due to the confusion over the venue, while Andorra had had nine sessions to get used to the conditions before the game.
All of this seemed to be adding up for the most embarrassing moment for Welsh football since we gave 20 caps to Steve Morison. Each minute that passed with the score at 1 – 0 caused more and more distress to the Welsh supporters. Most people had laughed off the opening goal as a blip, even singing “We’re gonna win 10 – 1”, but hopes of an instant reply soon faded away. The unpredictable speed of the ball caused a number of passes that would usually find their man to instead go out for a throw in, but I cannot blame the pitch for everything. I felt like some of the Welsh players had gone against the advice of Public Enemy and believed the hype, imagining they just had to turn up to win. The Andorran players might have been far less talented than them, but they were showing levels of commitment that most international sides can only dream of. Imagine working in a regular office job, and then having the chance to play against the most expensive player in the history of football. If you can’t be motivated for that then football is simply not for you, and the Andorrans were reacting well to the game of their lives.
Thankfully, it did not take Gareth Bale too long to show his quality. Ben Davies supplied him with an excellent cross, which he headed home with ease past the despairing arm of the goalkeeper. 22 minutes played and finally Wales had a goal, with the score now level at 1 – 1. The last goal I had celebrated was a 93rd minute winner for Feyenoord, which was the craziest I have ever been involved in. The reaction to this goal was the complete opposite, I have got more excited when my mate Barry scored a consolation for our university halls team. Rather than the crowd going wild, it was very much a case of the crowd going mild. Everyone knew that even a draw would probably kill our campaign stone dead, not to mention being arguably the worst result in our entire footballing history (and that includes some bad results!).
There were more chances for Wales in the next 25 minutes, but they were either squandered or hindered by the dreadful pitch the game was being played on. Half time arrived, with some boos for Chris Coleman and the team, some clapping and mostly stunned silence. How was this result possible, and how had UEFA possibly allowed this game to take place?
Beautiful stadium, ridiculous pitch
The second half followed a similar pattern, with Welsh dominance but no crucial second goal and an occasional chance threatening to give cardiac arrests to the Wales fans that filled two stands. These travelling supporters had become more and more frustrated, with chants of “Coleman, sort it out”, “UEFA, you’re a joke” and “This pitch is too shit for us” just some of the choice words that came from the massed ranks of away followers. Despite the frustration, there was still a good level of support, with one rendition of Welsh hymn Calon Lan particularly spine chilling.
Then came the moment you’ve probably come to read about. With eight minutes to go, Wales are awarded a freekick by the inept official, one of the few decisions he made correctly all night. Of course, it would be totally wrong of me to suggest that UEFA had reacted to the criticism they had received from Welsh supporters by having a word with the referee before the game, so here I am, not suggesting that. With Andorra so close to a historic first point and the players clearly starting to feel the pressure, their defensive wall was a complete shambles. The players were screaming at each other to provide better protection from the upcoming strike from Bale, and this resulted in one player attempting to charge down the Galatico’s strike too early. He was given a yellow card, and the free kick ordered to be retaken.
This time, the man with the stupid hair and the magic feet made no mistake. The ball curled away from the goalkeeper, rippling the back of the net and sending an explosion of joy and relief through the Welsh supporters. For seven months, they had wondered where they would have to go to follow their team. For seven months, they had been let down and lied to by UEFA, and for 81 minutes of the match they had been forced to watch their team struggle against inferior opposition on a pitch that I would not allow my five a side team to play on. So yes, many of the Welsh supporters joined their team on the pitch to celebrate the goal, hurdling seats and advertising boards as the celebrations spilled out of the stands. It lasted less than a minute, and nobody was hurt by the invasion, apart from the mental trauma of witnessing the hairy backside of one particular supporter whose trousers had fallen down during his enthusiastic celebrations. Welsh fans have come in for a lot of criticism and mockery for this celebration, but if you weren’t there, you don’t know. This was about more than just a goal against Andorra, but a successful ending to a trip which had looked like ending in disaster so many times. As the Welsh song ‘Yma o hyd’ states:
Ry’n ni yma o hyd,
Er gwaetha pawb a phopeth
Ry’n ni yma o hyd.
In English, this translates to:
We’re still here
Despite everyone and everything,
We’re still here.
So yes, we had a pitch invasion against Andorra, and it was absolutely justified. Not to mention, completely hilarious.
The last moments of the pitch invasion (visible faces hidden)
At long last the final whistle blew, and Wales were off to a winning start despite the many obstacles thrown in their way. Better still, news came through that Bosnia had lost in Cyprus. This means that if Wales can win their two home games next month, they will be at least six points ahead of their Balkan qualification rivals. The dream which had looked dead just minutes ago was now very much alive. After pitch invading due to a win in Andorra, who knows what will actually happen if we qualify!
The day after the game, UEFA announced that it would be investigating Wales supporters for the pitch invasion. Two hours after this ‘investigation’ began, the FAW was charged for the pitch invasion. It should come as a surprise to exactly nobody that Wales fans were left to wait seven months to know where the game would be played, and it took UEFA less than 24 hours to see an opportunity to make some money through a fine. As the Welsh showed in Andorra, Legia Warsaw showed a few weeks earlier, and shown by so many others who have protested against UEFA over the years, the spirit of the football supporter is constantly worn down and tested by the corrupt organisation who runs our game, but never broken. Because despite their best efforts to turn us into consumers who buy their products and sit down and clap politely, we are still here. And we always will be.