The last European World Cup qualifying game has been played: Wales secured its place in Qatar after beating Ukraine 1-0. Their opponents wave a graceful goodbye, having competed with rare poise and dignity. Ukraine have made their efforts against the backdrop of a horrific invasion by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces. This was therefore a match that mattered to both countries for vastly different reasons. For Wales, it was merely a contest of huge sporting significance. They had not made it to the World Cup since 1958, when they went as far as the quarterfinals and were stopped only by the genius of a 17-year-old Pelé. For Ukraine, whose leaders, public figures, and everyday citizens are doing everything they can to ensure that their conflict does not slip from public view, qualification would have been another way to keep their nation and its plight on the lips of the global media. A visit to Qatar would also have provided much joy and maybe a little respite from the horrors that their nation continues to endure daily.
But for Ukraine, it was not to be. They came up against two of the more resilient forces in world football: the Wales defense, marshaled by the outstanding Ben Davies, and the will of Gareth Bale. Wales withstood 22 attempts on their goal, nine of which were on target, thanks in no small part to the magnificence with which Wayne Hennessey guarded their net. At the other end of the field, they were led by Bale, who recently claimed his fifth UEFA Champions League medal with Real Madrid—a record for a British player—and who was now determined to take his country on a journey once considered almost unthinkable. Bale would be the decisive element in this match—his first-half free kick was deflected by Ukraine’s Andriy Yarmolenko into the net. It was recorded as an own goal, but it might go down as Bale’s greatest contribution on an extraordinary CV.
It is difficult at times to believe that Bale is still only 32, given that his career and his physique have had several distinct phases. First he was the skinny, gutsy, and lightspeed-quick left back at Southampton and Tottenham Hotspur; then, still at Tottenham, Bale emerged from the depths of the gym, his torso swarming with extra muscle, to rampage along either flank; and then, by now a sort of Welsh Thor, he went on to Real Madrid, supremely unbothered by either his world-record transfer fee, the pressure of football at the highest level, or his eventual alienation by Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane. Maybe it is fitting that Bale shares a surname with Christian, the Hollywood actor perhaps most famed for his ability to transform himself for his roles. While Christian famously reduced himself to the thinness of a length of twine to play a factory worker in The Machinist, Gareth bulked all the way up in order to assume the role of footballing superhero.
Yet it would be unfair to say that this was merely a case of Gareth Bale against Ukraine. Just as Leo Messi has now found gorgeous form for Argentina, so have Wales found a team structure where they provide their aging superstar with the freedom to play at his joyous best. This Wales team is studded with experienced and accomplished campaigners for whom this match was a culmination of many years of effort and one that, given that they are all in their 30s, they were determined to win. For Hennessey, Chris Gunter, Aaron Ramsey, and Joe Allen, this was maybe their last dance at this level, and so they took the floor with the rarest resolve.
They had to. Oleksandr Zinchenko’s playmaking and consistent brilliance prompted Ukraine. Zinchenko, who gave serious thought to returning to his homeland to resist Russia’s invasion, was superb throughout, ensuring that even as Ukraine chased the game they never panicked, chipping and slicing and forcing the ball through barely noticeable gaps in Wales’s final third. Alongside him was the masterful Ruslan Malinovskyi, from whom the only regret must be that we did not see the type of extraordinary long-distance strike that he regularly unleashes for Atalanta. The speeches that Ukraine’s players have made on behalf of their country, their calls for solidarity, and their tears at the devastating toll that this slaughter happening in the war in Ukraine is taking on them, will hopefully continue to resonate through their sport long beyond this campaign. They were playing for far more than football, unfairly so. Their bravery on the field should now be matched by the world’s politicians off it.
For all of Ukraine’s endeavors, though, this was Wales’s day, inspired by their remarkable captain. Much is made, sometimes with mockery, of Bale’s love for golf, with the Madrid press often commenting that Bale would rather spend time playing 18 holes than being with his teammates. Yet Bale’s mentality in high-pressure situations is that of a champion golfer in the last round of a major tournament: oblivious to the growing clamor around him, he strolls toward glory, his gaze fixed firmly ahead. Bale has left Spain as one of the more unloved legends in recent times. He famously claimed a Champions League title for Real Madrid with a superb goal against Liverpool in 2018, after which he gave a post-match interview in which he effectively asked for a move, frustrated at his lack of playing time. Like Messi, though, he has long since found greater satisfaction playing for his national side, where he continues to contribute to an exceptional team spirit.
If there is any consolation for Ukraine, then, it is that they could not have lost to a better rival, one whose key characteristic, beyond their technical gifts, is their sense of togetherness. This is the same togetherness that has allowed Ukraine’s players to summon uncommon courage during these last few months, and which is in the very best traditions in team sport. If Ukraine were to be defeated by anyone, then it is only right that it should have been Wales, who once again proved themselves to be the unslayable dragon.