Wales sense ‘gamechanging moment’ in key Women’s World Cup qualifier

“Here for the weather! We’re only here for the weather!” chanted the band of travelling Wales fans on Thursday night, in wry acknowledgment at the sheer magnitude of the fixture. It wasn’t a classic, but it didn’t need to be.

After a 1-0 win over Greece in hot, thundery Volos, Wales need only a point from their game against Slovenia in Cardiff on Tuesday to secure a playoff place for the 2023 Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. Having lost only to Euros semi-finalists France so far in this campaign, the momentum is with Gemma Grainger’s squad.

Almost three months to the day after the Welsh men qualified for their World Cup in Qatar, the Cardiff City Stadium is set for another emotional occasion. With 10,000 tickets having been sold already, doubling the previous record attendance for a women’s fixture, Tuesday feels like a defining moment for this team.

The players will have spent the summer feeling that Welsh‑est of emotions, the unique disappointment that comes from watching as spectators a tournament they came agonisingly close to qualifying for. With all the inevitability of an exercise bike purchased in lockdown being used as a clothes horse, Wales missed out on Euro 2022 in the most heart-breaking of circumstances. Finishing third in the group on equal points with Northern Ireland and with a far superior goal difference, they lost out by virtue of having a worse head-to-head record, as the away goals rule favoured Northern Ireland after a 2-2 draw in Newport before a 0-0 stalemate in the return fixture in Belfast.

Having lost narrowly to France in both fixtures in this World Cup campaign, this team know they can compete with some of Europe’s best sides. For a fanbase that is so hungry for success, Welsh supporters could be forgiven for staring at the final table for Women’s Euro 2022 qualifying Group C with disbelief as the eyes of the world focused on England this summer. Failing to qualify by virtue of the away goals rule in a head-to-head. We go again.

Much has changed since that disappointment. Grainger was appointed Wales manager in March 2021, having spent 11 years working with the England age group setup. She was part of England’s coaching staff for the Women’s Euros in 2017, where England reached the semi-finals.

Grainger can call upon a squad that has a healthy blend of youth and experience, with a talented core of senior players for whom this campaign offers a final chance of World Cup qualification. Carrie Jones – the scorer of Thursday night’s winner – is only 19, and her place in the starting lineup might not have come if Jess Fishlock, who has a record 119 caps, had not taken a knock in training.

It was Jones’s first goal for her country and capped a fine display from a very exciting young prospect. But a slice of reality tempered the elation she felt at scoring Thursday’s winner as her heartbroken mother tweeted to say she’d missed seeing it because she had to work a late shift for the NHS. There’s no way the person in charge of that rota doesn’t understand the magnitude of the game against Slovenia.

One person who will be there on Tuesday night is Laura McAllister. She is deputy chair of the Uefa women’s football committee, and was one of the three women who in 1993 successfully lobbied the Football Association of Wales to establish the women’s team officially (an unofficial team, entirely organised and funded by the players already existed), before going on to captain the side. As much as McAllister would love to see established stars such as Sophie Ingle, Fishlock and Natasha Harding play at the highest level, McAllister’s experience in sports governance makes her more aware than most of the potential benefits World Cup qualification could provide.

“It’s a total gamechanging moment,” she says. “It’s what we do with the funding and attention to grow the game for all girls. Every single stage needs proper investment, and the only way we’ll do that is if we have the platform of the World Cup, and the funding and attention that comes with it.”

With so many of the Welsh team playing across the border in the Women’s Super League, the English success this summer has given even more impetus to the players. McAllister thinks England’s tournament win will help Wales. The Bristol City and Wales defender Ffion Morgan described the Lionesses’ Euros victory as “bittersweet” – a sentiment McAllister can appreciate. “I understand Ffion’s comments entirely. Because for me as well, there was disappointment at not seeing Cymru on the European stage.

“But on the other hand, the success of the tournament has reverberations for all of us in the national associations across Europe. But I’d say particularly for those of us like Wales where we already have a very clear strategy for how we develop the game. In a way, this just adds incentive and added pressure, but in a good way,to get there sooner.”

But Tuesday comes first. Slovenia are third in the group and two points behind Wales following a 1-1 draw in October. Wales will be roared on by an expectant, record crowd, the demographics of which are changing – something that interests McAllister. “Yes you have the children, we’ve really pushed that, clubs and schools are buying blocks of tickets, but there’s lots of men going to the games now, who are just members of the Red Wall – for them, it’s just another Cymru game. And I like that normalisation.

“I think that’s really important, that the two teams are seen as one in the fans’ eyes. I think it’s a breakthrough moment on Tuesday whatever happens, because the fanbase will be representative of what we’ve wanted it to be for a long time.”