The full-time tears of frustration were proof that Cymru had come within touching distance of reaching the World Cup finals, and while the heartbreaking manner of the defeat will take time to heal, qualifying for the finals of a women’s major tournament will surely become a reality sooner rather than later.
A brutal injury-time in extra-time play-off final winner for Switzerland shattered the dream in Zurich on Tuesday evening. In one moment, a qualifying campaign that had irreversibly changed the direction of women’s football in Wales had come to an abrupt end, but the legacy of this defining period under the guidance of Gemma Grainger will provide the platform for future success.
Cymru finished as runners-up in Group I behind France, collecting 20 points from 10 games and pushing the group winners close in both games. Convincing home victories over Kazakhstan, Greece and Estonia in the early stages of the campaign justified the optimism and belief instilled in the group following Grainger’s appointment in March 2021, with her positive and bold approach to taking the game to the opposition heralding the start of a new tactical era for the side.
Jayne Ludlow took Cymru to within one match of qualifying for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup, but defeat against England in the final game brought that particular dream to an end. A victory would have resulted in automatic qualification that night at Rodney Parade, but the full-time whistle confirmed a 3-0 defeat. It was an emotional occasion, and with many of that squad still involved four years on, that disappointment continues to fuel a desire to take Cymru to the next level on the international stage.
Failure to reach the next EURO finals followed and a new era began as Grainger replaced Ludlow. Well-respected for her work with England but relatively unknown outside of that environment, Grainger made a positive impression in her first camp as Cymru hosted international friendlies against two strong opponents in Canada and Denmark in April 2021. A 3-0 defeat and a 1-1 draw followed respectively in the capital, but it was the positive switch in playing style that was immediately apparent and would become the cornerstone to the next campaign.
Captain Sophie Ingle was switched from defence to her preferred midfield position while Cymru looked to push forward at every opportunity. Previous games against quality opposition had seen the side defend in numbers, an approach that smaller nations take in order to frustrate their opponents. It was a clear sign of belief from Grainger in the quality available to her, and to see Cymru playing with such a positive approach in those opening games signalled a real shift in mentality.
“We will have our way of playing and our mentality will be focused on us and how we can be competitive and win games,” said Grainger in May 2021. “It’s a long campaign, and we will be taking it a game at a time. There will be twists and turns, and we have to play to our potential. Whoever we play, we will be preparing in the same way. We’re hoping the fans can get behind us and give us that competitive advantage. The support that we have from the country as a whole makes us want to be the best that we can be.”
With 1,745 fans in attendance, Cymru opened the campaign with a 6-0 win over Kazakhstan at Parc-y-Scarlets last September. Grainger wrote an open letter to the nation before the match and the crowd was seen as a positive step in the journey. The previous record attendance for a Cymru home international was set in 2018 when just over 5,000 fans watched the defeat against England. This would be surpassed three times as the nation invested itself into this World Cup campaign.
A new record crowd of 5,455 was set in the 4-0 win against Estonia in October 2021, but it was the decisive final match against Slovenia in Cardiff last month that rewarded the hard work both on and off the field as 12,741 fans created an incredible atmosphere at the Cardiff City Stadium. The 0-0 draw was enough to seal a play-off place, and 15,200 returned for the 1-0 win over Bosnia and Herzegovina that would setup up the crucial match against Switzerland in Zurich.
A number of factors sit behind the growth in interest, and while the improved results and performances under Grainger during the course of the campaign have been pivotal, the amount of work by staff behind the scenes in engaging at grassroots level through a number of different initiatives and pushing increased media coverage cannot be underestimated. It has been a long process, but the rewards have more than justified the effort from all involved.
When the dust settles on the defeat in Zurich, the overriding positive will be in the numbers that have shown their support for the team and the focus will switch on how we continue to build on this position of strength. For Grainger and her backroom staff, the fine margins that prevented her side from getting points against France will provide the foundations for the next campaign, and while Tuesday will remain raw the planning for EURO 2025 is already underway.
“I am immensely proud of every player and the progress we have made,”Gemma Grainger
“When you are that close and the margins are that fine, it’s really, really hard to take. But I will reflect on a bigger picture here. The team we are today compared to the team we were at the beginning of this campaign are worlds apart. The most important thing for any team is to take the learning and the development because our journey doesn’t end here.
“We have just written a chapter. We created history. Those players have gone further than any group had before. I am always going to look forward and that’s where I am at right now. We obviously wanted to qualify, but we talked about this World Cup as a little bit of a free hit for us, in terms of let’s go and give it everything we have got with a plan knowing we will play at the next European Championships.”