LONDON — Question time.
Who is the best supported national team in Europe? Here’s a clue — they are 61st in the current FIFA rankings.
OK. One more clue. Their coach earns £175,000 a year which makes him one of the lowest paid of all 51 managers in Europe.
Give up? It’s Wales. Yes, Wales which next Wednesday plays Azerbaijan in Baku hoping to make it three wins in three Euro 2004 qualifying games, having already beaten Finland (away) and Italy (home).
Thanks to a sensible pricing policy at the magnificent Millennium Stadium in Cardiff and a resurgent side under the guidance of Mark Hughes, Wales is averaging around 60,000 for every home game.
Not bad for a team which not along ago was ranked 107th in the world, which meant its supporters had to cross the road to avoid talking to fans from Togo, Mali or Jordan.
Wales is the new Republic of Ireland — as the Irish are on the wane after two Euro 2004 defeats and the resignation of manager Mick McCarthy, the Welsh are on a roll with a seven-match unbeaten run.
Not that Hughes and company are getting carried away, but four teams in FIFA’s top 30 have failed to beat Wales this year. From little acorns . . .
Draws against Argentina and the Czech Republic plus wins over Germany and Italy have made people sit up and take notice of Wales, which went without a victory following a debut success for Hughes in Belarus in 1999.
Initially Hughes, who was playing for Southampton, took over on a part-time basis. But last summer he hung up his boots and was offered a long-term full-time deal by the Football Association of Wales with a modest base salary of £175,000 plus lucrative bonuses boosting his pay.
The FAW has not raided the coffers too much in recent years to pay previous managers with bonuses, and Hughes admits that he would still rather be playing than managing.
“Nothing beats playing,” said Hughes. “But being a manager comes quite close and the excitement I get from the job cannot be underestimated. They are completely different emotions but I still get that big adrenaline rush before games.”
In his 22-year career as a player with Manchester United, Barcelona, Bayern Munich (on loan), Chelsea, Southampton, Everton and Blackburn, Hughes never performed outside the top division and his C.V. also shows him to be the only footballer with four F.A. Cup winners medals at Wembley.
Hughes’ first task was to make Wales more difficult to beat and six draws in the Euro 2000 qualifiers were proof the team no longer quaked in its boots at the prospect of going to places such as Armenia.
Wales has traditionally had good players and Hughes is fortunate that apart from Ryan Giggs, youngsters such as Simon Davies, Craig Bellamy, Mark Delaney and Daniel Gabbidon are coming through the ranks.
The new generation is aware of the millstone around its neck — that no Wales side has reached a major finals tournament since 1958.
However, that may be about to change. “I have never been so excited,” said Giggs. “When you have confidence in a team you can get on a roll that is difficult to stop.
“Mark Hughes has given us that belief. Before we were used to losing — now we are used to playing well and getting good results.”
Giggs’ sentiments are echoed by Robbie Savage, the Birmingham midfielder.
“The difference Mark Hughes has made is unbelievable,” said Savage. “He sends us out believing we can beat the best in the world and Italy are certainly one of them. I’d say this is the best team we’ve had since 1958.”
Wales operates two systems — a 4-5-1 formation when the opposition has the ball which becomes 4-3-3 when it has possession.
In goal is Southampton reserve Paul Jones with a back four of Delaney (Aston Villa), Andy Melville (Fulham), Gabbidon (Cardiff) and Gary Speed (Newcastle).
Savage, Mark Pembridge (Everton), Bellamy (Newcastle), Davies (Spurs) and Giggs provide a balanced midfield with Celtic’s John Hartson a battering ram lone striker.
The Savage-Pembridge partnership in midfield is a dogs of war combination, the duo snapping away at opponents while the pace of Bellamy and Giggs would trouble any defense.
“I’ve been saying for over a year that we’ve turned the corner,” said Hartson. “No one believes you until you come up with a big result.”
Now Wales faces the potential banana skin in Azerbaijan, ranked 111th in the world, with Baku a 6 1/2-hour flight away plus a four-hour time difference. The oil-rich former Soviet republic, which borders Iran, Armenia, Turkey, Georgia and Russia has been an independent football state for only 10 years and its domestic game is in a sorry state.
UEFA banned Azeri clubs from European competition this season after the league season ended in farce. The Azeri Soccer Federation refused to recognize the championship after 10 of the 11 Premier clubs quit the competition to form their own breakaway league.
The clubs accused the ASF of corruption but the club ban has not affected the national team.
Azerbaijan won only one point in its 2002 World Cup qualifying campaign from a draw against Macedonia — in the Euro 2000 campaign the Azeris even handed Liechtenstein its first-ever competitive win.
Wales is taking nothing for granted and Speed said: “All teams are very organized these days.”
But these days Wales is organized on and off the pitch. In days gone by, one player had to make his own way to a game in Turkey because the plane had been overbooked and none of the Football Association of Wales council was willing to give up a seat for the team’s center-forward.
Hughes won the battle for his team to be kitted out in suits when it travels, a winter training camp in the south of Spain (the Welsh media were unanimous in their support for that) has been arranged and the players have tracksuits that would not be out of place on the catwalk.
No longer is Wales the Ragbag Rovers of European football and a place in the Euro 2004 finals is realistically within its sights.
ROY KEANE reluctantly decided not to challenge the five-game suspension and £150,000 ban imposed by the Football Association after revelations in his autobiography that he deliberately set out to injure Manchester City’s Alf Inge Haaland.
One newspaper headline seemed to sum in all up — “Keane is not appealing.”