Over the last 12 months, a groundswell of opinion has emerged to suggest that Wales are on the cusp of achieving something special. After rallying to record three victories in their final four UEFA EURO 2012 qualifiers, with the only defeat to England following a performance at Wembley which deserved much more, the Dragons then thrashed Norway in an international friendly.
Progress was understandably tempered by the tragic death of former manager Gary Speed in November 2011, as well as their eventual failure to qualify for the European finals in Poland and Ukraine. But with a Great Britain team entering the Men’s Olympic Football Tournament and continental qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ beginning in September, 2012 could still be a breakthrough year for the Welsh.
Former Wales midfielder Robbie Savage certainly believes so, backing young players from his country to participate at London 2012 and prove their worth on an international stage. “The Olympics will be great for Welsh football,” the 37-year-old told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview following the competition draws at Wembley in April.
“The Olympics is a carrot for Welsh players,” Savage continued. “With not being able to take part in a major tournament because you haven’t been good enough, then what better way to gain experience and pass that experience on to players who don’t make the squad? If I had the opportunity, I would play.”
The Team GB men’s XI will be coached by Stuart Pearce during the July/August tournament, with the former England defender expected to name his squad before the end of this month. Wales internationals Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey have both expressed their desire to play, and Savage encouraged the duo.
“It’s down to the individual,” explained the man who made 39 appearances for his country. “If you’re Gareth Bale, who is up and coming and has done fantastically well and is a huge talent, the likes of Brazil and Argentina, who aren’t here this time, see this tournament as huge and they want to see the likes of him on a world stage. I think it can only be a positive for players like that.”
Two-time reigning Olympic champions Argentina will indeed not be in London, with their place taken by CONMEBOL rivals Uruguay, who were subsequently drawn in the same group as Great Britain, along with Senegal and United Arab Emirates. Team GB will take on La Celeste in Cardiff, which presents a mouth-watering prospect according to Savage.
He enthused: “For the men, obviously being Welsh, it is Great Britain against Uruguay at the Millennium Stadium, which is fantastic. I think Great Britain should progress out of the group with the young talent we have got and the players who don’t go to the EUROs, hopefully including the likes of Bale and Ramsey.”
Looking beyond the Olympics, the former Birmingham City, Blackburn Rovers and Derby County player revealed his pleasure at a FIFA World Cup qualifying group which could eminently be navigated by Wales. The team, now led by new manager Chris Coleman, will meet Belgium, Croatia, FYR Macedonia, Scotland and Serbia on the road to Brazil.
“I think we have a great chance in World Cup qualifying,” said Savage. “Obviously we start the campaign without a fantastic manager and man in Gary Speed, but I think Chris Coleman does not have to tinker too much after what Gary did with them.”
Wales have only appeared at one previous FIFA World Cup, when they reached the quarter-finals at Sweden 1958, and their record in UEFA European Championship is no better, having reached the same stage during their single participation in 1976. But belief is undoubtedly growing that 2014 is an achievable target.
“Speaking to Gary before he sadly passed away, he felt they had a real chance because that group could be anybody’s,” Savage said. “Looking at the draw, it was the best possible group Wales could have. Our generation under Mark Hughes was so close to getting to the EUROs. They have a great chance, no question about it.”