When the draw was made for World Cup 2022 qualifying, Wales knew they had a tough task. Drawn into Group E of European qualifying, Belgium were always going to be favourites for the group, and the first matchday confirmed that, as Wales lost 3-1 in Brussels, despite Harry Wilson’s early goal. However, they followed that up with a 1-0 win over the Czech Republic Daniel James scoring late on.
That result looked like it could be crucial. With Belgium likely to win the group, and Estonia and Belarus both looking unlikely to qualify, second place would be straight shootout between Wales and the Czech Republic. The teams finished with almost identical records, both racking up a goal difference of +5, with 14 goals scored and nine conceded. However, Wales finished one point ahead of the Czech Republic, with 15 points.
With both teams playing eight games, both racked up four wins, but Wales only lost one, while the Czech Republic lost two. Having squeezed into second place in the group, the Dragons qualified for the play-offs.
As a seeded side in the play-off draw, they were drawn against Austria in the semi-final of their qualification play-off. The game took place in Cardiff in March 2022, and a Gareth Bale brace was enough to see Wales through, despite a consolation goal from Marcel Sabitzer with just under half an hour to go.
March saw a number of games played in a short space of time, but fans who had a football accumulator on the results would have to wait, as Scotland’s semi-final against Ukraine was delayed by the Russian invasion of the Eastern European country. With Wales due to play the winner of that game in their play-off final, interim manager Rob Page’s side found themselves waiting too.
The rescheduled game eventually went ahead at the beginning of June, with Ukraine running out comfortable 3-1 winners at Hampden Park. Four days later, Wales hosted Ukraine in Cardiff, with a place in the World Cup group stages on the line. Despite having played at Euro 2016 and Euro 2020, it was 64 years since Wales last took part in a World Cup, and the mixture of hope and nervous anticipation in the stadium made for an electrifying atmosphere.
It was a tight affair, with one goal enough to decide the result. Gareth Bale’s first half free kick was headed in, albeit unintentionally, by Andriy Yarmolenko. The Ukrainian captain’s own goal was a sucker punch, with the visitors having had the better of the game up until that point. It was a hectic affair, with Bale having a chance to double the lead late on, while Brennan Johnson hit the woodwork.
At the other end, Ben Davies had to be alert to snuff out danger on numerous occasions, and Wayne Hennessey was in phenomenal form, with the Ukrainian attackers likely wondering if it was even possible to get the ball past him.
It wasn’t the most impressive performance in the home side’s history but, roared on by a jubilant Cardiff City Stadium, the only thing that mattered to Wales was the win. They secured their place in the Qatar, where they’ll be joining England, the USA, and Iran in the group stages of the World Cup.