It was about Gareth Bale, If it was about Wales, it was always about Bell. He would have played only 22 minutes of football in the 10 weeks since the playoff semi-final win over Austria; He may not be able to last anything like a full game; As far as Real Madrid is concerned, he may actually be a former player; But he is still the player who makes Wales more than just another mid-ranking side.
There will be people who have their own subjective preferences for John Charles or Ryan Giggs, Ivor Allchurch or Ian Rush, but what can be said for now is that no one has ever achieved more. Wales shirt. Not that he inspired them to reach the semi-finals of the European Championship and first qualification to the World Cup in 64 years. It’s that he achieved those feats six years apart. Remains left but this is clearly a different side from Chris Coleman and Bale has been important to both of them.
When Bell lined up a free-kick 11 minutes before half-time, the mind inevitably went back to the free-kick he scored in the same goal against Austria in March. This time, on the other side of the pitch, Bell stood on the tee assessing the conditions: 25 yards, wind from left to right, heavy rain. He selected his club, glanced at the goal and the wall standing in the way, went through his pre-shot routine, took his swing and then observed a fall as Andrey Yarmolenko hit the ball behind his own goalkeeper. Rotated – that rarely happens golf.
Bell is one such player these days who plays in small pieces. He doesn’t dominate matches like he once did. He is 32 years old and, while his lack of regular football could probably prolong his career – if he so wants it – it also means a lack of basic match fitness. Yet somehow the game still revolves around him, as if Bell’s idea is strong enough to exert a gravitational force. And again and again he would throw a ball out of the air with an outstretched leg or search for an angle that no one else had seen to renew the strength of that thought.
But it wasn’t entirely about Bell. It was also about Wayne Hennessy’s athleticism and sure handling in the rain, about Neko Williams’ diligence on the left, about Allen and Dan James working tirelessly through midfield and a slew of shots thrown in the way. About a dozen bodies.
And it was also about singing. What property does Wales have in its choral tradition. As soon as things get tense, they can simply flip through the hymn and start singing something provocative and melodious, an inspiration for those on the pitch and a distraction for those away from it. And that, perhaps, is what makes Welsh football so enjoyable at the moment, both for fans and players. There is a feeling of being together, with fresh peaks being carved together, which is extremely exhilarating.
Before Wales’s playoff semi-final win against Austria, Dafid Ivan, the grandson of one of Plaid Cymru’s founders, performed Yama o Hyde (“Still Here”). Their song is about a defiant sense of Welsh identity and how it remains strong even after nearly half a millennium of union with England. But Ukrainian fans, too, probably found resonance in its words: “We’re still here, in spite of everyone and everything.”
And there we run straight into the weirdness of opportunity. How can the result of a football match compete with the news about a counterattack in Svyarodonetsk? How can these things occupy the same people’s head and heart at the same time? And yet they do. Football is trivial and yet it counts – not as an escape, yes, but as something else, as a symbol of, well, whatever it should be.
Ukraine’s fans, determined to enjoy every moment of being Ukrainian in a public place, waved flags during Ivan’s rendition; Joined a communal claim of his own. It’s definitely what fans want, rather than the corporate crap of a Camila Cabello concert, which is seemingly designed for people who are less for sport than for spectacle. . Ukrainian fans were remembered at the final whistle, both by Wales players who applauded him, and by Welsh fans who joined his thunderclap: the moving gesture should not be forgotten.
Popular sentiment was probably behind Ukraine but that should not dampen Welsh happiness. For this they have been waiting for a long time. He has endured Joe Jordan handball, Davey Cooper penalty, Paul Bodine miss.
In those moments the odds are felt that have been overcome, rather than part of an inevitable and ongoing curse, a measure of what Bell and his side have achieved.