It had to be Gareth Bale for Wales in a game that turned on its head at half-time. The World Cup arrived with that goal and those beautiful limbs…
Veins were at bursting point on the faces of the Welsh fans as they, the players and coaches boomed out Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau before kick-off. 64 years is a long time. But anthems, World Cup themes and the words of Michael Sheen can only take you so far. And the ‘red mist’ that was supposed to ‘float through the valleys’ and arrive ‘like crimson thunder’ in Qatar, instead appeared to cloud the minds of the Wales players, who looked rather overawed by it all.
USA, whose players had no World Cup experience to speak of and form the second youngest squad at the World Cup, looked like old stagers by comparison.
Rob Page said before the game that he opted for Harry Wilson and Dan James to support Gareth Bale as he wanted to test the legs of the admittedly cumbersome American central defensive partnership of Tim Ream and Walker Zimmerman. But with USA pressing high and Wales’ passing iffy to say the least, bruising target man Kieffer Moore was burning a hole on the bench. Penned in would be an understatement for the battery-farmed Dragons in the first half.
Norwich striker Josh Sargent hit the post for USA early on while talisman Christian Pulisic and Timothy Weah, son of George, found spaces either side of Ethan Ampadu at the base of the Wales midfield and ran behind the defence. And it was the two speedy wingers who combined to score. Pulisic squeezed through a couple of Welsh challenges after Rodon had sold himself and slipped the ball through to Weah, who came off the wing to poke the ball beyond Hennessey. It was a well-deserved, well-worked goal that encapsulated what looked to be a gulf in technical and physical ability between the two sides in the first period.
But this is a USA side that’s failed to score in six of their last seven games against teams competing in Qatar. They’re not that good, as they showed, or rather Wales forced them to show, in the second half.
It’s a typical football cliche, often an inaccurate one, to suggest a player changes a game, but Keiffer Moore completely changed the game. He beat Ream to a ball in the channel immediately after half-time with some smart movement, held the ball up, and that was it – the USA defence dropped and suddenly Wales proved that they are ‘still here’ rather than just singing about it.
Ben Davies had a diving header well saved by Matt Turner, Moore really should have scored from the resulting corner, but it was That Man Gareth Bale, ‘the freak’ as John Hartson referred to him on commentary, who scored Wales’ first World Cup goal for 64 years. It had to be.
Having been clattered in the box by Zimmerman with his back to goal, Bale venomously swept the resulting penalty into the corner to give us some proper football limbs in Qatar, from a group of fans who would have accepted Mordor as the host nation, so long has their wait been for that moment.
That goal wasn’t just proof that Wales are ‘still here’ but that the World Cup is as well, as a ‘red mist’ poured from that wall of fans and seeped from TV screens into living rooms, not just in the valleys and rolling hills, but into the homes of Qataris, Arabs, Africans, gays, disabled people and migrant workers, to provide blessed relief from the stalest of stale openings to a World Cup in World Cup history, and remind us what this tournament is all about.