When the Euro 2012 draw was made there was every chance Wales would struggle badly. Montenegro looked a difficult proposition and only the wretched form of Bulgaria appeared able to offer Wales hope of salvation, with it eventually sparing the Dragons the ignominy of the wooden spoon in Group G. However, a much-needed managerial change and a late rally has radically redrawn the landscape for the country’s latest effort to reach a major finals for the first time in a generation.
After an awful start to Euro 2012 qualifying under John Toshack, a side devoid of inspiration and still scarred by the near-miss of a playoff defeat for Euro 2004 suddenly emerged under Gary Speed into a skilful, energetic young team with the potential to achieve success over the next decade. Four successive demoralising defeats were followed by three wins from four, the only loss coming in a game where for long periods the Dragons dominated the old English enemy, and the subsequent revival from rock bottom to within a whisker of third has massively rejuvenated Welsh football.
The renaissance, as ever, came just a moment too late to have any immediate impact. The draw for the World Cup qualifying groups came before the team began to lift off, and consequently before a ball was kicked there were huge obstacles ahead for Wales to qualify for Brazil, a fact made plain by their place amongst the bottom seeds as the Faroe Islands somehow became higher ranked.
However, performances over the last few months have significantly raised the prospects of a productive Welsh qualifying campaign, with a march up the world rankings (they currently lie 90th) and the ensuing promotion up the seeding brackets possible; a playoff position in World Cup qualifying is a slim yet not too implausible scenario.
Avoiding the big names such as Germany, Holland and Italy, as well as the nightmare proposition of both France and Spain in Group I, Wales were drawn in the daunting yet doable Group A with Croatia, Serbia, Scotland, Belgium and Macedonia. Macedonia, under former Wales boss John Toshack, are far from their bothersome recent selves, while Serbia’s loss of stars Nemanja Vidic and Dejan Stankovic to retirement leaves a team relying too much on Milos Krasic and vulnerable to upwardly mobile nations. Croatia’s class will likely see them top the group, but there should be a fiercely contested battle between Serbia, Wales, Belgium and perhaps Scotland for the runners-up berth.
In this race for second place Wales will fancy their chances, especially if they come flying out of the blocks with the same vim and vigour with which they ended the last campaign. Scotland are slowly improving, with useful players like Charlie Adam, Darren Fletcher, Alan Hutton and Craig Mackail-Smith, but the World Cup will come too soon for blossoming talents such as Aston Villa schemer Barry Bannan.
With Serbia on the slide and Scotland on the slow road back, the Dragons’ real battle should be with a vibrant young Belgium side. Led by Manchester City’s excellent skipper Vincent Kompany, featuring the attacking talents of Moussa Dembele and Romelu Lukaku up front, and with an all-star midfield cast including Eden Hazard, Marouane Fellaini, Axel Witsel and Kevin De Bruyne, the Belgians can match the youthful promise of the Wales of Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey, Chris Gunter, Darcy Blake, Neil Taylor, Joe Allen and Wayne Hennessy, with plenty to occupy neutrals and leave talent scouts salivating.
Much like with the national rugby side, an injection of youth and an increasingly serious professionalism has brought about an upturn in Wales’ form and lifted the mood immeasurably. While it really would be a fairytale to see the Dragons in the Maracana in July 2014, the real triumph would be merely making the group stages in Brazil, breaking decades of underachievement.
Realistically, it still looks like qualification for 2014 may be a step too far, but a good showing should see third place as a feasible target to aim for, using that as a base for the next campaign. With Euro 2016 expanded to 24 teams just as this Wales side would be predicted to hit their peak, getting a good seeding for then is the primary focus of the fight for the flight to Brazil.