Gareth Bale against Ukraine’s dream of qualifying for Qatar | Sports | The USA Print

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Gareth Bale, this Saturday in training with the Wales team.
Gareth Bale, this Saturday in training with the Wales team.JOHN SIBLEY (Action Images via Reuters)

Ukraine’s effort to qualify for the World Cup in Qatar while Russia continues to attack its territory is perhaps the most sympathetic sports story in the world. So much so, that in Cardiff there is a lament that lately whenever Wales is about to take an important step, the most beloved team on the planet crosses their path. The last time, in the round of 16 of the last European Championship, when they had to face Denmark, who a few days before had seen Christian Eriksen die and come back to life on the pitch during a match. Wales lost 0-4.

They trust that this Sunday at Cardiff City Stadium (6:00 p.m.) the clash with the favorites from around the world will be resolved in another way and Wales can return to a World Cup 64 years after the last time, in Sweden in 1958, when he was still playing with them the legendary John Charles. Now they have Gareth Bale, who this Saturday tried to pierce that coverage of the global affection that surrounds Ukraine: “We will be the most popular team in the stadium,” he said in reference to the more than 33,000 spectators that are expected to fill the venue. It has been weeks since it has been impossible to buy a ticket, long before it was known what the last obstacle to Qatar would be.

Bale played the card of his people: “We love playing at home, and in front of our fans. We love the atmosphere, which intimidates the other teams. When we’re tired, they sing the anthem and give us that extra energy.”

The match is presented as a formidable emotional battle. Wales have been waiting for another footballer capable of leading them to a World Cup for more than half a century, and now that they have found Bale they also believe that in some way they owe it to him to reach the appointment in Qatar so that he can see himself there with Benzema, Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo .

But on the other side, a team awaits them that had to go into temporary exile in Slovenia in order to prepare for the playoffs, and that functions as one more piece of the propaganda gear of a country at war. Dynamo kyiv midfielder Oleksandr Karavayev said that his parents, who are still in Kherson, a city under the control of the Russian army, had not been able to see the first match of the playoffs on Wednesday, their victory against Scotland at Hampden Park (1-3 ), in which he assisted the second goal. “They have no internet connection. We communicate with text messages,” he recounted.

War permeates the match, including the visitors’ locker room, where a Ukrainian flag sent from the front line by soldiers will hang. The coach, Oleksandr Petrakov, said that they had promised that the emblem would preside over the changer in the match that they have described as “the most important in the history of Ukraine”.

For Wales it could also be, although they try to reduce the weight of history. Bale acknowledged that they were facing a “huge” game, but avoided labeling it as the biggest game of his career, and recalled that in 2016 he had also played a semifinal of the European Championship, which they lost against Portugal (2-0).

Ukraine exhibits the gravity of the moment, while Wales tries to play it down. Before Bale appeared his coach, Robert Page, who marked the line: “We are trying to treat it like any other game, not put more pressure,” he assured. Then Burnley defender Connor Roberts followed suit: “If you had been in the gym with us this morning and seen how relaxed we were, how normal everything was; the players, the coaches…”, he assured. But if the situation gets out of control, they have the captain: “Gareth Bale has played more great games than all of them combined here. I will look to him to guide us to the World Cup, to drag us to win, “Roberts said.

Both he and Page ruled out sympathy for the suffering Ukraine. “We will be empathetic, we all watch the news, but we are focused,” said the coach. “In the end it’s a football game,” Roberts completed.

Nobody trusts concessions in Ukraine, as Karavayev explained: “We do not expect gifts, nor an unfair victory. We never wanted that. It’s the most important game of our lives.”

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