Just a few weeks ago, Wales were hailed as the Best Mover of 2011 in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. For the first time in years, Welsh fans are looking to the future with a degree of justifiable optimism.
John Toshack, one of the nation’s genuine footballing icons, rates as a dyed in the wool Wales fan, but the former Liverpool star will have observed the startling progress of recent months with mixed feelings. His heart and soul are of course devoted to his home country, but on the other hand, he has to show full commitment to his current job.
As FYR Macedonia coach, Toshack will face the Welsh in 2014 FIFA World Cup™ qualifying. “It's a remarkable situation, but I hope we'll see two very good matches,” he exclusively told FIFA.com.
An evenly matched group
The 62-year-old took up his current position in August 2011. He personally regards the task as more akin to a development role, although just over six months into the job, he described his initial impressions as “positive". Following a long coaching career including spells with Real Madrid, Besiktas and as Wales national coach in 1994 and from 2004 to 2010, the mission with the nation ranked 103rd in the world is refreshingly new and full of possibilities. “It's a huge challenge, but in any case, there need to be improvements in every aspect of the infrastructure here," he said.
Toshack's record with Macedonia so far reads two wins, two draws and two defeats. In qualifying for UEFA EURO 2012, Crveni Lavovi (The Red Lions) landed fifth out of six in Group B, so the focus now is on the campaign for a berth in Brazil. The nation in south-east Europe, a full member of FIFA since 1994, has yet to qualify for the global showdown. In four attempts between 1998 and 2010, only a pair of draws against the Netherlands in qualifying for Germany 2006 stand out from the norm.
You have to keep talking to your players. I train my players exactly the same way I was trained in Liverpool 40 years ago.
Once hostilities commence in autumn 2012, Croatia, Serbia, Belgium, Scotland and the Welsh provide the opposition to captain Goran Pandev and his team-mates. “It's definitely an interesting and evenly-matched group. All the teams could do it," Toshack mused. The 62-year-old clearly feels his new charges are no mere cannon fodder. But what does he regard as his team's strengths? “I'm still trying to find out," he replied.
The man who scored 13 goals in 40 full international appearances certainly has plenty of experience in FIFA World Cup qualifying, both as a player and as former Wales coach. However, he has yet to appear at the finals in any capacity, although the former striker's career record is highly distinguished. In Liverpool colours, he won the English championship three times and the UEFA Cup twice, scoring almost 100 goals in some 250 appearances over eight seasons.
Blessed by luck
Toshack feels he has been very lucky at times, both as a player and a coach, so picking out a single career highlight was almost impossible. Nevertheless, he identified two especially memorable moments. “On the one hand, my goal in 1974 when we beat Barcelona 1-0 (at the Camp Nou in the first leg of the UEFA Cup semi-final), and on the other, Hugo Sanchez’s 38 league goals when I won the Spanish championship with Real Madrid in 1990."
The Welshman is communicative and a traditionalist when it comes to coaching. “You have to keep talking to your players," he said, “I train my players exactly the same way I was trained in Liverpool 40 years ago." Football has of course changed in recent decades, especially in terms of the players’ physique and fitness, but Toshack argues that systems and philosophies have fundamentally remained the same.
It remains to be seen what the former striker can achieve with the Balkan minnows. Are Macedonia serious contenders for a place in Brazil, or just minor irritations on the way for the likes of Serbia, Croatia and the rapidly improving Belgians? A first verdict is due in mid-September, once Macedonia have travelled to Croatia and Scotland on the 7th and 11th respectively.