After a glossary of near-misses, Wales qualified for a first World Cup in 64 years after edging out Ukraine in a nervy playoff final. The goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey made a series of improbable of saves, some more mind-bending than others, Ben Davies was heroic in defence and Neco Williams threw his body on the line in five minutes of second-half stoppage time to preserve a narrow and perhaps slightly fortunate victory. Then there is the small matter of Gareth Bale, whose free-kick was diverted in by the Ukraine captain Andriy Yarmolenko.
And just like that, Wales became one of the most unpopular teams on Earth, ending Ukraine’s hopes of reaching the finals in November. Wales, meanwhile, can start preparing to play England, Iran and USA in Qatar.
For Wales, the only goal will live long in the memory. It stemmed from Ruslan Malinovskyi blocking off Daniel James 20-odd yards from goal, to leave Bale standing over a free-kick that was from an almost identical distance to when he opened the scoring against Austria in the semi-final.
Bale flighted a devilish low cross towards the back post and Yarmolenko, sensing danger, flung himself towards it and inadvertently headed the ball past his own goalkeeper, Georgiy Bushchan. Bale wheeled away, pointing to the crest on his chest. Ben Davies, one of Wales’s standout performers on the night, tapped his temples, urging calm among his teammates. Hennessey was arguably the strongest contender, however, his sprawling left-hand save to prevent the substitute Artem Dovbyk from heading in Vitaly Mykolenko’s cross late on the pick a fine bunch.
Davies embodied Wales’s spirit. The defender, playing on the left of a back three, made a block with 15 minutes to play when Yarmolenko side-footed the ball goalwards after Ukraine scooped the ball into the the box. A minute earlier Wales could have doubled their advantage. The substitute Brennan Johnson struck a post and seconds later, after another surge by Johnson, Bale was denied by Bushchan after meeting Aaron Ramsey’s twirling cross. Ramsey was also guilty of missing a wonderful opening early in the second half, placing his shot wide after collecting Kieffer Moore’s centre after Williams and James carried the ball upfield.
There was a feverish atmosphere before kick-off, the buildup short of anything remotely close to a lull. The Welsh folk singer, Dafydd Iwan, purposefully moved up the pecking order, received a hero’s welcome before performing Yma o Hyd together with most of this stadium and after held aloft a Spirit of ‘58 scarf, a nod to Wales’ last appearance on the world stage.
Ukraine’s players displayed a flag in their dressing room that was scribbled with handwritten goodwill messages sent to them by soldiers on the front-line, a sobering reminder of their motivations. Ukraine’s players, who again sung the national anthem draped in their national flags, were applauded by the Welsh fans with a front-row seat of their final warmup shuttle runs. “Tonight, now is our time,” predicted the stadium announcer before a moving rendition of the Welsh national anthem.
Bale emerged from the tunnel, poured a bottle of water over his head, and was off and away. It was a fraught start from a Wales perspective, with Joe Allen and James booked inside two minutes. By the time the third minute arrived Ukraine had the ball in Hennessey’s net, but Oleksandr Zinchenko’s quick free-kick, the result of Allen’s foul on Taras Stepanenko, was taken too hastily for the referee Antonio Miguel Mateu Lahoz’s liking and duly disallowed. The selection of Hennessey was intriguing in itself, the 35-year-old goalkeeper who won his 100th cap in March preferred to Danny Ward, who impressed at Euro 2020 last summer. Hennessey was kept busy from the moment he – just about – got to grips with Malinovskyi’s early free-kick.
Hennessey twice saved well from Viktor Tsygankov and then Roman Yaremchuk. With a dozen minutes gone Joe Rodon apologised after surviving a scare when Zinchenko charged the ball down, interrupting Wales’s attempt to play out from defence. Oleksandr Karavaev passed up another inviting opening after Ramsey lost out to Malinovskyi. The Ukraine right-back could not arrange his feet but eventually got a shot away that looped up off Davies and towards the grateful grasp of Hennessey.
On a clammy evening when rain lashed down throughout, Wales were made to weather the storm. Ramsey put in a pearl of a cross that eluded Moore and James but Ukraine were soon back on the front foot. Tsygankov dropped his shot wide after racing clear of Ethan Ampadu and in on goal and then Hennessey denied a rampant Zinchenko.
Ukraine’s head coach, Oleksandr Petrakov, his glasses condensed with rainwater and jacket sodden, could have few complaints with his team but could feel aggrieved at how, five minutes before the break, the video assistant referee did not tell the erratic Spanish referee to take a closer look at a collision between Allen and Yarmolenko. Allen, caught stone-cold by Yarmolenko’s shuffle towards the ball, clearly clipped the Ukraine captain’s heels in the box but play instead continued from a corner. Moments earlier, Hennessey rushed across to his near post to keep out a rattled drive at goal from Zinchenko. Wales rode their luck, but they got the job done.