The end of the world: When Hagi's Romania broke Welsh hearts
Paul Bodin’s infamous penalty miss against Romania in 1993 has passed into British folklore, but 25 years on from that pivotal moment in the history of Welsh sport, Mike Gibbons revisits the full story around Wales’ heartbreaking failure to qualify for the 1994 World Cup in the United States.
Twenty-one countries have played at the World Cup once and once only. A few of them have even provided some landmark moments; East Germany famously beat West in the latter’s home tournament in 1974, while Haiti took a shock lead against Italy in the same tournament to end Dino Zoff’s record of 1,142 minutes without conceding an international goal. In most cases, these one-hit wonders haven’t stuck around. When the group stages are done most of them have gone home, leaving the teams who regularly contest the tournament to get on with the serious business.
One of the few exceptions to this are Wales. Their squad had been booked on flights home for the end of the first round in Sweden in 1958. After drawing all three matches, though, they beat Hungary in a play-off at the end of the group stages to advance to the quarter-finals. Wales’ greatest ever player, John Charles, missed that game through injury; their opponents' greatest ever player was just 17 years old and raring to go. Pele scored the only goal of the game to send Brazil through, and Wales had narrowly lost to the eventual world champions.
It was a taste of honey that Welsh football hasn’t experienced since. Their attempts to get back to the World Cup in the tournaments after Sweden form a catalogue of disappointments. In 1977 and 1985 their progress was stopped by Scotland in bizarrely similar circumstances; on both occasions a late, controversial penalty awarded against Wales had swung the result in Scotland’s favour. As the years passed the agony of the near miss in qualifying was not just confined to World Cups. Wales also came close to qualifying for the European Championship finals for the first time in 1976, 1984, 1988 and 1992. Yet no qualifying heartbreak, before or since, aches in the soul of Welsh football quite like the evening of November 17, 1993 in Cardiff.
It was the final night of World Cup qualifying across Europe, with Wales in the rare position of being the British team with the best chance of reaching the finals in the United States. Their match against Romania was the culmination of a campaign that had connected the team with their public in a manner not seen previously, a blossoming relationship that was soundtracked by an Andy Williams song. A victory had the potential to change Welsh football, and the nation’s relationship with football, forever. But it was not to be. After one of the most fateful penalty misses in British football history the multi-talented Romania side, led by the brilliant Gheorghe Hagi, went to the finals instead. In the United States they would captivate the world; Welsh football was left to reflect on how its own had fallen apart.
"I went back to the hotel that night and cried," their manager Terry Yorath later said. "I knew, both as a player and manager, I'd probably been as close as I could be to getting to a World Cup finals. I knew it wouldn't come round again."
1. Rust, Renewal and Ryan
Ryan Giggs poses for a photo with the Welsh national team in 1993Getty Images
The story of how Wales arrived at that juncture at all is remarkable. Yorath, a former Leeds United, Coventry and Tottenham midfielder and Welsh international, had taken charge of the team in 1988. The first job in his in tray had been to try and qualify for the 1990 World Cup in Italy; Wales finished bottom of a qualifying group that included West Germany, Holland and Finland, without winning a game. Public interest in the teams’ matches was almost offensively low. The home qualifier against the Netherlands, who were the reigning European champions, was contested in front of just 9,025 fans at the Racecourse in Wrexham.
When the next qualifying campaign for the World Cup came around the early signs were that the pattern was unlikely to change. Wales were placed in a qualifying group with Belgium, Romania, the Representation of Czechs and Slovaks (RCS), Cyprus and the Faroe Islands. Their first match, away in Bucharest in May 1992, was a brutal experience in many senses.
"The country was in a terrible state, with children begging everywhere," said Neville Southall in The Binman Chronicles. "People had nothing. We’d started taking our own chefs to these countries by this stage, and if you left anything on the table – brown sauce or ketchup, whatever – it’d be gone. It was a grim place." In the immediate post-Ceaușescu era, one beacon of hope for the people of Romania was their football team, who had kicked on from a promising turn at Italia 90 and morphed into a sensational outfit. Wales were utterly battered in the first half and shipped five goals in the opening 35 minutes, eventually losing 5-1.
" Stop what you’re doing now, and just have a look at this kid"
Yorath regretted playing a back four that day and switched his team to a 3-5-2/5-3-2 for the rest of the campaign. Despite the apocalyptic start, there was an optimism around Welsh international football that had risen steadily under Yorath in the preceding years. Wales had run Germany close in qualifying for the 1992 European Championship, and beat them at Cardiff Arms Park in 1991. They also turned over Brazil there in the same year. The upbeat mood those results generated meant that the Football Association of Wales (FAW) abandoned their policy of using the national stadium for marquee fixtures only and decided to use it for all the World Cup qualifiers. What really transformed the campaign for Wales was the introduction of a blood-twisting winger born in Canton and schooled in Swinton.
"We all knew Ryan from a 16-year old," Welsh right-back David Phillips tells Eurosport. "I can remember seeing him over in Chepstow, and Terry Yorath turning around and saying 'stop what you’re doing now, and just have a look at this kid. Look how quick he is.'” As with Manchester United, the skill that Giggs allied to his pace helped to fast-track his route to the first team, where he became the youngest player ever to represent Wales in late 1991.
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After a few substitute appearances Giggs made his first start for Wales in the home qualifier with Belgium in March 1993. His impact was sensational, as he transferred his burgeoning club genius to the international game immediately. Giggs curled in a gorgeous free-kick to give Wales the lead. Ian Rush later added a second, his 24th international goal and a new Welsh record. That victory compensated for a 2-0 defeat in Brussels five months earlier and changed the trajectory of the campaign for Wales. The impact of Giggs had been sensational. "Ryan was world class, even as an 18-year old," says Phillips. "He still had things to prove, but he was instrumental in why we did particularly well towards the latter part of that campaign."
Wales would finish their qualifying section in the autumn of 1993 with three home games against the RCS, Cyprus and Romania. The group was claustrophobically tight, with the top four teams all horse-trading points from each other. Wales could only draw 2-2 with the RCS in September, with goals from Giggs and Rush again; they backed this up with a nervous 2-0 win over Cyprus a month later. Victory was only secured with goals from Dean Saunders and Rush in the last twenty minutes, against opponents that finished the game with just nine players.
Nevertheless, the job had been done. The permutations for the final group were complex, with Belgium, Romania, the RCS and Wales all separated by two points, and all playing on the final night of qualifying. Wales needed to beat Romania by two goals in Cardiff to be certain of qualifying for the World Cup. Belgium were playing the RCS in a concurrent fixture in Brussels, and if the RCS didn’t emerge victorious then any win against the Romanians would put the Welsh and Belgians through. For their part, Romania only needed a draw to advance. It all boiled down to one thing for Wales: just get the win in Cardiff.
2. Can't Take My Eyes Off You
Wales fans attend the Romania gameGetty Images
If they had one thing in their favour, it was momentum. That run of autumnal home games had captured the imagination of the Welsh public, as the prospect of qualifying for a first World Cup in 36 years came tantalisingly into view. The 1958 team in Sweden had performed their heroics in an era before televised coverage of football had really taken off and existed mostly in legend. Yorath’s team were taking Wales on what felt like a thrilling journey into the unknown. They had raised the profile of the second most popular sport in the country to the point where it was starting to challenge the rarely disputed hegemony of the first. By November, the Welsh national football shirt was outselling its rugby equivalent in Wales; just a week before the Romania game, the rugby side reached the nadir of a miserable early-nineties slump by losing at the Arms Park to Canada.
BBC Wales had sensed the atmosphere changing. Their head of promos, John Morgan, came up with the idea for a series of television adverts for the Wales matches that autumn. Inspired by the unlikely source of a singalong bar scene from The Deer Hunter, Morgan decided to use Can’t Take My Eyes Off You as his underscore. The BBC eventually used the version by Andy Williams rather than the Frankie Valli effort from the film. The song, with its infectious chorus, soon found its way to the vocal chords of the growing throng in the Arms Park stands.
In the advert it was played over shots of the goal celebrations by the team, where they all ran to one corner of the pitch and in unison all pretended to swing a golf club. It was the most famous union of Welsh football and golf in history, until Craig Bellamy decided to set about John Arne Riise with an eight iron on a Liverpool club trip to the Algarve in 2007. For the Welsh team in 1993 it was evidence of the camaraderie engendered by Yorath, and the rising sense that qualifying for the World Cup was now a live possibility.
For most of the squad it was their last chance. Southall, Rush and Mark Hughes were not just three of the greatest Welsh players of all time, but three of the best that league football in Britain has ever seen. All three were now into their thirties, as were Phillips, Mark Aizlewood, Eric Young and the captain Barry Horne. Just behind them at 29 were Dean Saunders, Paul Bodin, Clayton Blackmore and Mark Bowen. "If it doesn’t happen this time," Yorath warned in the week of the game, ‘we could struggle to do it ever again."
Wales, back row from left to right; Speed, Giggs, Aizlewood, Bowen, Hughes, middle row; Melville, Young, Norman, Southall, Roberts, Symons, Coleman; front row Pembridge, Rush, Goss, Horne, Saunders and PhillipsGetty Images
The perennially cash-strapped Welsh FA were promising a £1 million bonus package for the players if they made it to the United States; throughout the qualifiers, they had been on the £200 match fee only. The FAW were estimated to have pocketed £2 million already during qualifying, with potentially another £4-5 million to flow in through sponsorship if Wales made it. With all that cash flying about, it made the FAW’s decision not to front some of it to the man who had orchestrated the resurgence of their football utterly baffling.
Yorath’s contract as manager was set to expire the morning after the Romania game and, to Yorath’s chagrin, FAW secretary Alun Evans opted to wait and see if Wales qualified before he would countenance discussing a renewal. "We didn’t want the last Wales boss, Mike England, to go because we thought we would just go back to square one," said Rush in the build-up. "Now, under Terry, we believe we have reached a certain height and if Wales got rid of him, we’d be right back there again."
" The players and I have got the responsibility of doing for Welsh football what nobody else has been able to do"
There was a lot to play for in Cardiff, and the potential ramifications of a Welsh victory went far beyond merely qualifying for the World Cup. In Yorath’s eyes, the summer trip to the United States was a bagatelle compared to what a victory over Romania might really mean - inspiring a new generation of players that might transform football in Wales forever. "The players and I have got the responsibility of doing for Welsh football what nobody else has been able to do,’ he said. ‘To grab hold of it by the roots and start pulling it up. To me, that is the be all and end all of the match."
The Welsh squad was a broad church of age, talent and experience, from attacking players at the Premier League’s best clubs to defenders playing in Division 1. Yorath had a pool of around 25 players he could realistically select an international squad from, and regularly wrote circular letters to the 92 league clubs in England and Wales to find out if any new Welsh players were on their books.
The UEFA rules at the time classed Welsh players as foreigners for English clubs in European competitions, which threatened another avenue to finding experience at the highest level for Yorath. Performing alchemy with such limited resources was not a viable long-term plan. In the week of the Romania game Yorath heavily laid into the state of the development structure, playing style and coaching methods for young players in both Wales and England. It was the kind of rhetoric usually heard in a country that had just failed to qualify rather than one on the brink of doing so. The idea that the long-term health of Welsh football was also at stake in Cardiff only added to the sense of jeopardy as the game approached.
If Wales were to triumph, they would have to do it without one of their best players. Hughes had picked up a needless late booking for an ill-timed lunge while Wales had led against Cyprus in the previous game; it was his second of the qualifying tournament and ruled him out of the final match. With Saunders and Rush occupying the forward positions for Wales, Hughes had been doing a handy turn in midfield for the team. Also suspended was Aizlewood, the lynchpin of the three Welsh centre-backs. Yorath’s rejigged team was Southall in goal; Phillips, Bodin, Young, Kit Symons and Andy Melville as the back five; Horne, Gary Speed and Giggs made up the midfield; Saunders and Rush were up front.
Every seat in the Arms Park was full, with the atmosphere in the stadium an amalgam of expectant and fervent. It was an incredible din given that the closure of the standing-only East Terrace due to Uefa regulations meant that only three sides of the ground were in use. The referee was Switzerland’s Kurt Röthlisberger, who in a few years would be banned for life for involvement in match-fixing. Two weeks earlier he’d handled Manchester United’s ‘Welcome to Hell’ visit to Galatasaray in the Champions League and sent-off Eric Cantona on the final whistle. After a rousing national anthem, the Welsh players were soon welcomed to their own hell – chasing Romanian footballers.
3. Hagi and the genius of Romania
Gheorghe Hagi lines up for the national anthem in CardiffGetty Images
"Right before kick-off Peter Shreeves (Yorath’s assistant) said to us 'go out there and have a look at the player you are up against, and all the players in their team'." Horne later told BBC Sport. "'Ask yourself if they are good enough to stop you from going to the World Cup finals.”’ Although the Welsh players went out with the belief to the contrary coursing through their veins, the class of their opponents was quickly apparent.
Romania had a high volume of players adept with both feet and absurdly comfortable in possession of the ball. Dan Petrescu at right-back, Gica Popescu at sweeper and forwards Ilie Dumitrescu and Florin Răducioiu would all become familiar to a British audience when they joined the Premier League later in the nineties. In Cardiff they were part of a unit that were a glorious assault on the senses. Despite the bedlam every time Wales went forward, the Romanians cut through them on the counter with a brutal incisiveness in the first twenty minutes. Petrescu hit the post after 11 minutes, and shortly afterwards Dumitrescu went on a winding run past Symons and Young before skewing the ball over the bar.
An original match ticketEurosport
The rhythmic bouts of possession that the Romanians quickly settled into were particularly impressive given the state of the Arms Park pitch. Not only had the Welsh rugby team hacked through it the week before, it was still heavily roughed up in places after the stadium had hosted a fight between Lennox Lewis and Frank Bruno in October. At the end of Wales’ open training session two days before the game several hundred fans besieged the Welsh players for autographs, with a large and excitable mass around Giggs. Yorath had been forced to gruffly demand that they remove themselves from the pitch.
It was Romania’s genius that was dictating things in Cardiff. Prior to the game, Wales’ squad player Jeremy Goss had said that Hagi might be "God when it comes to football in his country, but first impressions are that he is a little bit overweight." As miscalculations go it was on a par with the legendary quote from England’s 6-3 defeat at the hands of Hungary in 1953, when an unnamed England player referred to Ferenc Puskas as "that little fat chap". On the night Hagi was sensational, just as he had been in Bucharest eighteen months earlier. It seems incredible to reflect now that, as someone who would play with Real Madrid and Barcelona in the years before and after this game, Hagi was at the time marooned in Serie B with Brescia.
" I made a mistake"
Throughout the first half, as Barry Davies noted in the BBC commentary, Hagi was finding the room to drift into the middle and shoot with alarming ease. "I made a mistake really," Yorath later said. "Before the game, I meant to tell the players that once Hagi drifted across to the right-hand side he liked to come in on his left foot." Yet they arguably should have been more than aware; Hagi had sauntered into that position in Bucharest from where he had larruped a screamer past Southall from thirty yards. In the 32nd minute in Cardiff, Hagi cut across Barry Horne from the right wing and shaped to shoot again.
"I’m better than I was 10 years ago," the 35-year old Southall had said before the game. "Why is there this big thing about age? You can’t knock talent on the head, no matter how old you are." Southall’s talent was one facet of his greatness; the other was the temperament of the horizontally laid back. After he’d misplaced his car keys earlier in the week, he’d blagged a police escort to take him to training at 100mph down a dual carriageway. When he chipped and volleyed a back pass to safety early in the game which was almost charged down by Popescu, he giggled like a cheeky street urchin getting away with mischief.
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When Hagi unloaded his shot from 25 yards, the trouble suddenly became very real. It skidded low through the penalty area, and Southall misjudged the pace as he fell to smother the shot just to his left. He dropped down a split second too slowly and the ball went under his dive and into the net. It was a horrendous mistake. Had Southall’s efforts for Everton not been so exceptional it might well have defined his entire career.
The goal temporarily sucked the atmosphere right out of the stadium. Romania nearly doubled their lead six minutes later when Dumitrescu was put clean through on goal. He tried to go around Southall, who managed to partially redeem his earlier error by grasping the ball out of Dumitrescu’s feet. Wales were struggling against the pace and movement of the Romanians. Giggs got away down the wing only once in the first half, an electric breakaway down the right followed by a cross that just missed Phillips. All of Wales’ best work in the first half came from crosses. Rush looped one header over the bar early on, while Young had one tipped over the bar by goalkeeper Florin Prunea as half-time approached. In added time, Wales’ best chance of the half arrived when a Melville header from a Giggs corner was headed off the line.
Early in the second half, the contest should have been over. Midfielder Ioan Sabău took off on a languid sashay right through the heart of the Welsh team, which ended with a disguised 25-yard chip that had Southall rooted as it floated just over the bar. In midfield, Wales were shipping water everywhere. Horne was booked when he flattened Ioan Lupescu after an outrageous dummy. Yorath removed Symons from defence and introduced Goss in midfield, switching the Welsh formation to 4-4-2. Hagi then blew a glorious chance as he ran clean through on to a deflected pass and miscued a simple volley horribly wide with his weaker right foot. Two minutes later it looked like it might be a costly miss; out of nothing, Wales pulled level.
4. Hope, and then disaster
Paul Bodin challenges Gheorghe HagiGetty Images
Giggs whipped in a free-kick from the right-hand side into the Romanian area. It pinballed around off the heads of Saunders, Young and then Speed, who propelled it at the goal. Saunders was waiting from one yard out to scramble a volley into the net and make it 1-1. The tumult thereafter was a mixture of relief, triumph and now expectation. Over in Brussels, the game between Belgium and the RCS was locked at 0-0. With less than half an hour to go, another Welsh goal could send them to the World Cup finals.
On certain occasions the sheer will of the crowd can tip a game completely off its axis. After exerting almost total control throughout the match, Romania were suddenly rocking. Less than a minute after Saunders’ goal Goss picked up a loose ball on the right and drove at Romania, egged forward by supporters baying for another goal. Goss fired a low cross into the box, which Gary Speed mis-controlled with his heel. The touch inadvertently took him around Popescu, but the ball was running through to Prunea. Speed and Petrescu barely brushed each other, and Speed went down. Incredibly, Röthlisberger awarded a penalty.
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Petrescu was incredulous, though he was in the minority. To say the stadium erupted would be a mild way of putting it; on the pitch, Saunders leapt about like the award of the penalty itself was a goal. On the replay it looked ludicrously soft, but few in the Arms Park were interested in the debate. After the World Cup dream had fallen apart due to iffy penalties in 1977 and 1985, it seemed karma was finally settling the bill with Welsh football.
At the start of the match the Welsh fans had been singing "Are you watching England?", mocking their neighbours who were in Bologna trying to hammer San Marino and rely on other unlikely results to get to America. As Paul Bodin prepared to take the penalty for Wales, England suddenly did take notice; the BBC switched their live coverage from events in Bologna to Cardiff as soon as the penalty was awarded, increasing the television audience by over 10 million and drawing 34,000 complaints within five minutes.
" When Wales got the penalty, I thought we were finished"
While those misanthropes reached for the telephone, Prunea kissed the ball in Cardiff and handed it to Bodin. As he placed it on the spot, Bodin rubbed the ball on the floor to get the good luck peck off it and then retreated to the edge of the area. Wales sensed that the Romanians were suddenly crestfallen. "Their morale collapsed," Giggs wrote in his autobiography of the two-minute frenzy around the equaliser and the penalty. "I could see from their body language that they didn’t want to know."
Dumitrescu confirmed that suspicion in a documentary for BBC Radio Wales in 2013. "When Wales got the penalty, I thought we were finished," he said. "Because of the way the match had gone, with us missing some good chances, I was thinking our opportunity had passed and now this was their big chance to go to the World Cup."
Only Dumitrescu will know if that statement was borne of hindsight generosity. On the night itself, the sudden swing of fortune in favour of Wales had put everything up for grabs. If Bodin could score, then it felt like momentum alone might take care of the admin of the last 27 minutes and put Wales through – but he rocketed the penalty at the crossbar with such ferocity that it came back down to earth five yards outside of the Romanian area.
"Such opportunities cannot be spurned!" Davies wailed on the commentary. "It’s so cruel. It had to be taken, but it wasn’t!"
5. The End of the World
Romania celebrate at the end of the gameGetty Images
The crowd redoubled their vocal support for the players, who battled on gamely. Giggs dragged a long range shot a yard wide, while Rush and Saunders had tame shots smothered by Prunea; Malcolm Allen, the Newcastle forward, came on to replace the unfortunate Bodin. The match was now wildly unpredictable, with the atmosphere increasingly desperate on and off the pitch for Wales; there was little time for anyone to breathe out, let alone process the enormity of the chance that had gone begging in the 63rd minute.
With a grim inevitability for Wales, the Romanians gradually relocated their equilibrium. They created three clean looks at Southall and the Welsh goal after the penalty. The otherwise excellent Dumitrescu and Răducioiu both missed hopelessly when they should have scored, while Sabau drew an excellent point blank save out of Southall. In the 82nd minute Wales finally cracked. Dumitrescu glided away from Goss and fed a through ball to Răducioiu, who took a touch before drilling a low shot through Southall’s legs to make in 2-1. All hope instantly drained out of the stadium. Only the celebrations of a tiny pocket of Romanian fans could now be heard.
Wales created one more chance, where Giggs failed to get enough purchase on his shot after a diagonal ball from Horne, but by that point it was too late. Romania had qualified for the World Cup, and Wales were out. Belgium had drawn 0-0 with the RCS; any win for Wales would have been enough. The defeat was a shattering blow for this generation of Welsh players. A campaign that had seemed destined to end with a trip across the Atlantic for the World Cup the following summer suddenly came to a juddering halt.
" The players were crying their eyes out"
"The dressing room was full of tears," Yorath told reporters after the match. "The players were crying their eyes out. Neville was big enough to admit he made a mistake, and if the penalty had gone in who knows? But football is cruel." Southall had offered to quit straight after the game. As bad as his mistake had been, the first half now felt like a lifetime ago. There was little doubt about which moment in the game would be the one to resonate. "I remember coming off and looking round the dressing room, seeing all the lads’ faces," Bodin later recalled. "They all said it wasn’t my fault but, to me, it was like the end of the world."
The loss of a football match was soon put into perspective for everyone in Cardiff. At the end of the game two Welsh fans let off a marine distress flare, which flew high across the pitch and into the North Stand. It struck John Hill, a retired postman from Merthyr Tydfil, and killed him instantly. "With many of my team-mates I attended his funeral," Southall said in The Binman Chronicles. "It was a terrible day and one that brought home yet again that there’s no such thing as a football tragedy when human life is at stake." The two fans were each jailed for three years after admitting manslaughter.
6. Decline and Dirty War
Terry Yorath on the sidelines for WalesImago
The morning after the match Yorath’s contract duly expired. He branded the failure of the FAW to even discuss it with him beforehand "scandalous". With England, Scotland and Northern Ireland eliminated as well, all the British teams had failed to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since they had entered qualifying in 1950. The inquest over how football is organised and coached on these islands soon began in earnest. Yorath fired a broadside at England’s rebranded top division, for failing to reduce the number of games as promised and improve standards. "What we have got instead is a Thatcherite Premier League," he told reporters, "where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. They are breeding only greed, and I’m afraid we have been found out."
Romania had exposed what, for all its high energy and passion, had been a limited Welsh game plan. After the game a Romanian journalist asked Yorath if Wales would ever move past kick and rush football, while Răducioiu suggested Giggs should move abroad rather than see his talent lost on the maelstrom of the Premier League. "You play with one dimension to get the ball upfield as quickly as possible," he said, "but sometimes the game demands patience, to move the ball sideways to create space." Yorath would not be around to try and develop such a style for Wales. In a move that stunned the squad and the supporters, the FAW declined to renew his contract. The sticking point was rumoured to be Yorath’s request for an extra £30 per week.
" They tore the arse out of us"
The Welsh team went into decline almost as swiftly as they had risen to prominence. John Toshack took over from Yorath on a part-time basis, dovetailing the role of Wales manager alongside his day job with Real Sociedad. For his first game against Norway in March 1994 he made about as good an impression as David Brent did upon meeting the Swindon branch for the first time in The Office. "I remember him coming in to the hotel," Phillips tells Eurosport, "saying 'Hey Rushie, hi Nev. As for the rest of you, I don’t know who you are.' So straight away my back was up. I thought at least you could have done a little bit more investigation before just picking out a few of the big hitters."
Wales lost 3-1 and were booed off at half-time and full-time. The crowd also chanted Yorath’s name during the match. Toshack quit his new role after just 47 days, citing a "dirty war" around the Welsh international set-up as his reason. His assistant Mike Smith, who had managed Wales in the 1970s and coached Egypt to victory in the African Cup of Nations in 1986, took over. But the momentum had gone, and by the end of 1994 Wales had gone completely. They were soundly beaten in their first three qualifiers for the 1996 European Championship by Moldova, Georgia and Bulgaria. The five-nil defeat to the Georgians in Tbilisi in the November was a spectacularly low ebb given where they had been just 12 months earlier. "We just turned up expecting to win," said Speed in 2003, "and they tore the arse out of us."
7. What Could Have Been
Romania celebrate their win in CardiffGetty Images
The victors in Cardiff spent the summer of 1994 tearing it up at the World Cup. Romania were the best attacking team in the United States, with Hagi, Dumitrescu and Răducioiu scoring nine goals between them in five games. They took one surprise 4-1 hammering from Switzerland in the group stages but won two World Cup classics either side of it; their 3-1 and 3-2 victories over Colombia and Argentina respectively cemented their place in history as one of the great cult sides in the history of the tournament. Only a surprising defeat on penalties to Sweden in a quarter-final that they should have won stopped their progress. "That defeat will hurt forever," Hagi told FourFourTwo in 2014, "because the saddest thing is to lose like that."
Back in Wales they know Hagi’s pain. "As soon as we got the penalty I thought: 'This is it, we're going through,”’ Yorath said in 2013. "I remember looking at it and 10 minutes before the penalty and thinking: ‘Paul's not playing very well, I'll bring him off, put Gary Speed at left-back and bring another attacker on.’" A school of thought has developed since that, with the likes of Rush and Saunders present, Bodin shouldn’t have been the one given the responsibility in any case.
That conveniently overlooks the fact that he was Wales’ designated taker and had scored a perfect three out of three in internationals. Six months earlier Bodin had also scored a late penalty in the First Division play-off final for Swindon Town to secure a 4-3 win over Leicester City. Nor was the nature of his strike evidence of nerves or self-doubt; hitting a penalty with force had always been his technique, rather than a panic-induced strategy that some people choose to believe he opted for in Cardiff.
" I am sick and tired of people blaming Paul Bodin"
Speed housed regrets that Bodin had to step up and take it at all. "What I’ve always wondered is what would have happened had I stayed on my feet?" he later said. "Would I have scored if I hadn’t gone down?" It’s highly unlikely that Speed would have made it to the ball before Prunea; the belief that he might have is indicative of spirit within a squad that didn’t want Bodin to shoulder the burden alone. "I am sick and tired of people blaming Paul Bodin for the defeat," Southall said in 2013, "because they are totally wrong. I should have saved that first goal. If I could have come off then, I would have done."
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Inevitably though, Bodin’s missed penalty has come to define that match and his life since. It says much about his willpower that he smashed in a late penalty for Swindon to secure a 2-2 draw with Ipswich Town just three days later. He has since recreated the miss in Cardiff for the S4C football show Sgorio, signed pictures of the incident for fans and chats freely about the incident whenever he’s asked. But for all the coping strategies, it still burns; not only on a personal level, but because of what it meant for everyone. "It was more the sense of loss," he told Wales Online in 2015, "it was such a big opportunity and that crop of players never went that close again. Deep down I knew that was my chance to go to a World Cup gone."
In this he’s not alone. Southall, Saunders and Speed all spoke of how the defeat stayed with them. Giggs, still a teenager in 1993, just assumed he’d get another look eventually. "I was completely gutted by the defeat," he said. "But I was young and was sure there would be other World Cups. This had just been my first shot at it." It would be the closest; Giggs retired from international football in 2009 without ever having played at a major tournament. His later inclusion in the Great Britain squad for the 2012 football competition at the London Olympics was hardly the international adornment that befitted his career.
Ryan Giggs in the match against RomaniaGetty Images
Giggs is now the Wales manager and, if he can build on a reasonable start, will likely be in charge to try and finally take Wales back to the World Cup in Qatar in 2022. Earlier this year he inherited from Chris Coleman a squad that went on a remarkable run to the semi-finals of the 2016 European Championship in France. It was Wales’ first appearance at a major tournament in 58 years. The expansion of the championship to 24 teams had offered a rare opportunity for the traditionally lower ranked teams in Europe to make history.
For Welsh fans over the age of 30, the summer of 2016 went some way to easing the pain of the memory of that defeat to Romania. In the ITV studio after the 3-1 quarter-final victory over Belgium in Lille, Giggs said: "It’s quite simply the greatest night in the history of Welsh football." Even in the hyperbolic afterglow of a momentous victory, Giggs was one person who could be relied upon to identify such extremes; 23 years earlier, he’d played in its most heart-breaking.
- Chapter 11. Rust, Renewal and Ryan
- Chapter 22. Can't Take My Eyes Off You
- Chapter 33. Hagi and the genius of Romania
- Chapter 44. Hope, and then disaster
- Chapter 55. The End of the World
- Chapter 66. Decline and Dirty War
- Chapter 77. What Could Have Been
- Chapter 87. Regeneration?