CROESAWU I'R CAE RAES - WELCOME TO THE RACECOURSE
CYMRU (Wales) vs LIECHTENSTEIN may not be the most headline grabbing international match, but it had 2 of the smaller nations in UEFA facing each other at The Racecourse ground(Cae Raes) in Wrexham(Wrecsam) in the north-east corner of Wales. Leichtenstein, with a population of 45,000, less than that of Wrexham, Wales' third largest city after Cardiff and Swansea, doesn't even have its own league. There are only 7 clubs and they all play inthe lower Swiss leagues with FC Vaduz, in the capital playing in the 2nd Division Swiss. Wales does have its own Premier League, and North/Central and South Wales regional feeder leagues. Wrexham, Swansea City and Cardiff City(now top of The Championship) play in the English Leagues. There is a pub in one corner of The Racecourse Ground, called 'The Turf', and in town a popular fan's pub is called The Elihu Yale, after the founder of Yale University. In fact Wrexham is supposed to have more pubs per population than anywhere else in Britain.
The Wrexham area is the birthplace of Welsh football, and for many years had the FA of Wales offices. When the Millenium Stadium was built in Cardiff in 1999, the office moved and also most home international matches, considering its capacity of 72,000 and the income that it could generate. However, this wintry Tuesday evening a friendly match was an opportunity for North Wales fans to see their national team play, and almost 9,000 showed up, suprisingly good considering the opposition and the fact that it was live on Sky TV. Wales easily won 4-0, 2two first half goals by Jason Koumas and the 3rd from Craig Bellamy. As the teams stood in line for the national anthems, the first was to the tune of 'God save the Queen' but Liechtenstein's words, probably about postage stamps and secure banks for 'funny money'. The Welsh National Anthem 'Land of Our Fathers' was next. The Wrexham club shop was full of Welsh Dragons of all sizes and lots of Welsh flags were waved by the fans. Both Wales and Wrexham are nicknamed The Red Dragons, but local, over the border rivals Chester FC fans use the name 'Sheep Shaggers' as a description. Afterwards I spoke with a Leichtenstein 'fan'. His name was Matthew from Newcastle, and he said he counted 11 fans at the match, 6 were English based ones. They had no obvious connection to the country but thought it a nice country to support and travelled to as many matches as possible. If you are interested, a recent book 'STAMPING GROUNDS- Exploring Liechtensteins World Cup Dream', written by Charlie Connelly, is a good read.
Wales is the 3rd oldest national team in the world playing, Scotland in Glasgow on March 25th, 1876 and the first international match on Welsh soil was a year later, in a 0-2 loss to Scotland in Wrexham. At the moment they are 77th in the FIFA World rankings and only once have played in the FIFA World Cup, back in 1958, the 'golden age' of Welsh Football. They were lucky to do so. After Sudan, Indonesia and Egypt refused to play Israel in the Asia/African zone, FIFA were not going to allow Israel to play in the finals without playing a match. Wales, along with other European second place group teams had their names put in a hat. Wales were lucky and beat Israel 2-0 in both Tel Aviv and at Cardiff's Ninian Park and went to Sweden. There they drew all three matches vs Mexico, Sweden and Hungary. They beat Hungary in a play-off and then lost 1-0 to Brazil in the quarter-final, with 17 year old Pele scoring the only goal. Brazil went on to beat Sweden in the final, their first of 5 titles. John Charles 'The Gentle Giant' was on that team but missed the QF due to injury. He played his club soccer at Leeds United(twice) and Juventus.
Today's star attraction is another legend, Ryan Giggs of Manchester United. Born in 1973 of a mixed marriage between father Danny Wilson and mother Lynn Giggs. he changed his name from Wilson to Giggs when he was 14 and his parents divorced, taking his mother's maiden name and describing his dad, who played Rugby League for Swinton, as a 'real rogue'. He has won 8 Premierships with Man Utd as well as 4 FA Cups and one Champions League medal. He is a UNICEF Ambassador and outspoken on racism in football. He wasn't so keen to play in all Wales matches, but under current coach John Tossack is happy to do so, and played the first half of tonights match.
On December 6th 1882 the 4 'home' associations of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland met in Manchester and formed the International Football Association Board to discuss the rules of the game. To this day they meet annually with half the votes to the British Associations and half for FIFA. Liechtenstein, like Wales, is a principality but didn't play its first international match until 1982 and the first competition they entered was in the 1996 UEFA campionship eliminations. Their first 2 FIFA World Cups they had 18 consecutive defeats. For the last World Cup there was a vaste improvement, hammering fellow minnows Luxembourg 4-0 and 3-0 home and away while tieing 2-2 vs Portugal and 0-0 vs Slovakia at home. They play at The RheinPark Stadium, also home to FC Vaduz of the Swiss 2nd Division. If the ball is kicked out of the stadium and floats across the Rhine its in Switzerland.