A blog on the effects of the Olympic Games on Wales’ star players.
Chris Coleman has been no stranger to the media and the Welsh public since taking over as national team manager at the start of the year. The former Fulham and Coventry City boss held a series of question and answer sessions following his appointment up and down the country in an attempt to maintain the optimism and belief inspired by his late predecessor Gary Speed without letting football spoil the spin. A disappointing defeat and performance in February against Costa Rica in his first game was only a sub-story as the country joined together to celebrate the life and achievements of their former manager, but the time for talking stopped when Mexico provided the opposition for Coleman’s first proper World Cup qualifying warm-up, and the concerns raised following the lacklustre 2-0 reverse were confirmed last week when Bosnia-Herzegovina eased past Wales by the same scoreline. Coleman offered an honest post-match assessment as his optimism turned to desperation.
The only positive offered by the Wales manager was that his side were now clearly aware of what was unacceptable. With far too few friendlies arranged in preparation for the World Cup qualifiers, Coleman enters his first qualifying campaign backed by a despondent home crowd and an apparently disillusioned squad of players. Disappointment has become an accepted part of the international game in Wales, but the progress made under Speed that inspired this golden generation of players and promised so much now appears destined to produce so little. Coleman accepted the difficult task of taking on what many believed to the impossible job, and while a ball has not yet even been kicked in the qualifying campaign, the expectancy surrounding the opening match against Belgium has been replaced by genuine concern. A few days after Belgium the campaign continues in Serbia, and with the opening two games expected to set the scene for the remainder of the campaign, attention should now turn to the individuals who will ultimately influence the results.
Although now firmly covered in the stigma of negativity, one significant positive to emerge from the defeat to Bosnia-Herzegovina in Llanelli was that all of Wales’ star name players tuned-up for the match. Despite the obvious importance of the fixture in terms of preparation for the opening two games of the World Cup campaign, a fringe line-up was expected with clubs desperate to keep their players as far away from international commitments as possible just a few days before the start of the new domestic season. In addition, the controversial Team GB side at the Olympic Games saw players such as Joe Allen, Aaron Ramsey, Craig Bellamy and Neil Taylor all spend a busy summer playing tournament football, and this additional fixture on top of a disrupted pre-season would have been best avoided by those looking after the interests of the individual. But like Speed before him, Coleman pulled off a major coup in ensuring that all of the above, as well as a not fully-fit Gareth Bale, were there to represent Wales.
It has become an accepted fact that Wales will only have a realistic chance of qualifying for the World Cup in 2014 if all of their star players are available for every game. The influence of Craig Bellamy against Bosnia-Herzegovina was significant and support for the experienced talisman from a well-balanced assortment of young talent will be crucial against teams of talented players in a not impossible qualification group. However, the defeat in Llanelli did emphasise that turning up for games may not necessarily be enough, as the only benefit of their appearance will be if all of the aforementioned stars turn-up motivated and hungry for success with Wales. The effects and circumstances of Gary Speed’s death remain hugely-influential on this group of young professionals, moving on from his time in charge will be difficult for all involved, but in order for Wales to succeed his legacy must be developed as a positive.
In fact, legacy has been an overused word this summer. The Olympic Games have been viewed as a success but as the euphoria fades, the cost of hosting the event must be justified by ensuring that a sporting legacy inspires the next generation. The return of a combined GB side in the football tournament split opinion but the legacy of Team GB may now be felt by Wales more than any other nation, only not necessarily in a positive way. Captain Ryan Giggs spoke of his pride of finally playing in a major tournament after years of disappointment, despite his early international retirement depriving Wales of his services in helping to make such a reality possible. His words will not have been lost on young players such as Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen and Neil Taylor, and suddenly such success with Wales is no longer the only possible to play in a major international tournament.
Many players have represented Wales since qualification was achieved in 1958, and for all the financial developments in the modern game, international football remains the only level of the game with real sporting value and integrity. In the international game, teams cannot buy success, and players cannot sell themselves to the highest bidder. You represent your country and your country only, and if you have the desire to reach the highest level in the international game, then that is the only team you can achieve it with. Regardless of the manager, the coach or your team-mates, your international success depends on how you perform for your country, but while players such as Ramsey, Allen, Taylor and Bellamy are yet to achieve such success, their hunger for major tournament football has now been fed by Team GB.
As a result, Wales’ last warm-up match before the World Cup qualifiers became a post-tournament warm-down for the four Olympians. Playing in front of just over 6,000 fans at Parc-y-Scarlets failed to compare to the capacity crowds at Wembley and the Millennium Stadium that they had experienced just a couple of weeks before, and it showed in the performance. However, as the Olympic memories fade, the desire to succeed with Wales will return to the level that it should be felt by each and every player, but the hunger and motivation must return by the time Belgium visit Cardiff in a couple of weeks time if the up-coming campaign is to be a defining one for this generation of talent. Much has been made of the Olympic legacy, much has been made of the detrimental effects of Team GB and the Olympics on Wales as an independent football nation, but the performance in the final friendly before the serious World cup business begins suggests the two may well have already combined. Its time to believe, its time for everyone to believe.
This blog was also featured in the official match programme of Wrexham FC for the Blue Square Premier match against Grimsby Town on Saturday, 26th August 2012.