Welsh last reached a major tournament in 1958 by beating Israel, now seek the same glory once again in Sunday game

File: Israel national football team players training in Tel Aviv on Sept. 4, 2013. (Flash90)
File: Israel national football team players training in Tel Aviv on Sept. 4, 2013. (Flash90)


CARDIFF, United Kingdom (AFP) – Wales can end 57 years of obscurity and heartbreak on Sunday when they play Israel in Cardiff needing a win to qualify for next year’s European Championship in France.

It was 1958 when Wales last reached a major tournament, ironically beating Israel in a play-off to qualify for that year’s World Cup in Sweden, where a side bereft of injured Juventus striker John Charles fell to Pele’s Brazil in the quarter-finals.

Wales have endured one-sided defeats, agonizing near-misses and personal tragedy in the intervening years, but Gareth Bale’s thumping headed winner against Cyprus on Thursday has set the scene for a night of catharsis at the Cardiff City Stadium.

“My message to the fans is: ‘Just stay with us,’” Wales manager Chris Coleman told his pre-match press conference on Saturday.

“We’re in new territory, dealing with a new situation, which we’ve earned, but it’s going to be tight and we’ve got to keep doing what we’ve been doing.”

A small, craggy nation of some three million people that juts into the Irish Sea, Wales is renowned more for rugby union than soccer and fans of the round-ball game have seen enough disappointment to know not to count any chickens before kick-off on Sunday.

A disputed handball by Scotland’s Joe Jordan denied them a place at the 1978 World Cup, while they were a crossbar’s width away from reaching the 1994 tournament, Paul Bodin’s penalty cannoning back off the woodwork in a 2-1 loss to Romania at Cardiff Arms Park in November 1993.

Their last brush with qualification came in 2003, when they reached the European Championship play-offs under Mark Hughes, only to lose over two legs to Russia.

Ryan Giggs was left to rue a glaring miss in the second leg at the Millennium Stadium, as he joined a list of Welsh greats including Charles, Hughes and Ian Rush, never to have played at a major tournament.

Hughes’s exit was the catalyst for a slump that saw Wales plunge in the world ranking to a low of 117, only for a youthful side to reverse the trend under the clearsighted management of popular former midfielder Gary Speed.

Speed’s death in an apparent suicide in November 2011 left Welsh soccer in a state of shock and his former teammate Coleman was not a universally popular choice to replace him.

Bale ‘Wales’ greatest’

The gum-chewing, perma-tanned Coleman did little to endear himself to Welsh fans by losing his passport prior to a World Cup qualifier in Macedonia two years ago — forcing him to miss the pre-match training session — but he has since engineered a stunning surge that has seen Wales rise to ninth in the FIFA ranking, above England for the first time.

Victory over Israel will lift Wales to the implausible heights of fourth in the world, and they could climb as high as second.

Coleman’s masterstroke has been the introduction of a 3-5-1-1 formation that has instilled defensive resilience and allowed Bale license to roam behind a lone striker.

Wales have scored only nine goals — fewer than Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Cyprus, the teams who trail them in Group B — but their defense has been breached just twice.

Bale, 26, has scored 12 goals in his last 15 games and his six goals in qualifying include winners against Andorra, Cyprus and a star-studded Belgium team, who lost 1-0 on a muggy, electrifying night in the Welsh capital three months ago.

In the eyes of former Wales midfielder Robbie Savage, the Real Madrid flier is “the greatest ever player to put on the red shirt.”

Joe Ledley has been ruled out for Wales through injury, but center-back James Chester could feature after missing the 1-0 victory over Cyprus with a hamstring injury.

Israel lost 3-0 at home to Wales in March, but remain firmly in contention for a top-two finish — and with it an automatic qualifying spot — after overpowering Andorra 4-0 on Thursday.

“We know Wales are ready to celebrate, but we will focus on our game and leave that to the Welsh people,” said Israeli coach Eli Guttman.

“If we do what we have planned and trained for, then I believe we will get points from this game.”

As reported by The Times of Israel