|Venue: Cardiff City Stadium Date: Thursday, 24 March Kick-off: 19:45 GMT|
|Coverage: Live on BBC Radio 5 Live, Radio Wales, Radio Cymru, BBC Sport website and app, plus live text online. Highlights BBC Two Wales from 23:15 GMT and later on demand|
If you want an idea of how significant it is that Wales are about to play in the World Cup play-offs, perhaps the best place to start would be the last time they were there, way back in 1958.
A far cry from the ultra-professional operation of modern-day international football that Gareth Bale and his team-mates will enjoy when they face Austria on Thursday, when Wales travelled to Israel 64 years ago they turned up without any balls.
The oversight meant manager Jimmy Murphy, Matt Busby’s assistant at Manchester United, could only prepare his side for the first leg in Tel Aviv with fitness sessions.
“It really was amateurish,” says Phil Stead, author of Red Dragons, a book about the history of Welsh football.
“You listen to the players and they’d say the selectors would come out with them and didn’t know who some of the players were. The councillors all took their wives with them and it really was a jolly.
“To be fair to the Football Association of Wales [FAW], international football was just not as big as it is now.”
That much is clear when you look at Wales’ qualifying campaign.
Teams in the UK had only been attempting to qualify for the World Cup since 1950, and the 1958 tournament in Sweden was Wales’ best opportunity yet with a stellar generation of players which included Tottenham winger Cliff Jones, Swansea inside forward Ivor Allchurch and the great Juventus striker and centre-half John Charles.
Wales were dealt a difficult qualifying group alongside Czechoslovakia and East Germany, though they beat Czechoslovakia 1-0 in Cardiff in their opening game.
However, it was from that point that things started to unravel.
“Wales were good enough to win the group but the preparation was genuinely shocking,” says Stead.
“Wales went away for a double-header against Czechoslovakia and East Germany, and there were almost as many councillors on the plane as there were players.
“The FAW had money now, post-war there was a bit of a boom. We had a good side and we had some big crowds and the FAW had the money but they just didn’t want to spend.”
Wales’ players were full-time professionals at least and they took the lead in East Germany in front of a crowd of 110,000.
But the amateur home side fought back to win 2-1 and, due to injury and illness, Wales had just 10 players for their next match in Prague.
“Even then, they were reluctant to call up more players and eventually they got Ray Daniel from his holidays,” Stead adds.
“He didn’t have his boots so he had to get new boots, played all game and got blisters.”
Things got worse for Daniel, who scored an own goal as Wales lost 2-0. He was then reprimanded by the FAW’s church-going secretary Herbert Powell for singing a popular show tune on the bus and was never selected again.
Wales’ qualification hopes were ruined. Despite beating East Germany 4-1 in their final game, Murphy’s side were eliminated – or so they thought.
Wales had an unexpected second chance, thanks to Israel’s unique circumstances.
In Israel’s Asian qualifying group, Turkey had withdrawn because they thought they should have been competing in Europe. Then Indonesia pulled out as they did not want to play in Tel Aviv, before Egypt refused to face Israel just a year after the Suez Crisis.
When Israel’s final opponents Sudan followed suit, Israel were left as group winners by default but Fifa could not allow them to qualify for the World Cup without playing a single game.
Instead, football’s world governing body organised a play-off in which Israel would play home and away against a team drawn from the nine European nations that had finished second in their groups.
Legend has it names were placed in the Jules Rimet trophy itself and first out were Belgium, who refused to face Israel on political grounds.
Next up were Wales. Any objections? Absolutely not.
“It was a big boost for us because we thought we’d missed out,” Cliff Jones, the Wales and Tottenham winger of that time, tells BBC Sport Wales.
“It was very political because a number of countries didn’t want to play against Israel.”
Fortunately for Jones and his team-mates, the FAW did not share the same political concerns as some other associations.
“It wasn’t surprising, looking at the political situation at the time and British relationship with Israel,” Stead explains.
“The FAW at the time were a very British organisation, very royalist, and it would have been unlikely they would have wanted to have upset the Israelis.”
Israel were delighted to host Wales in Tel Aviv for the first leg in January 1958.
“We had a great welcome,” says Jones.
“Every Wales player was given a crate of Jaffa oranges as a gift, which was lovely.”
The team were also invited to a reception by the British Ambassador, who had hung bunches of leeks around the embassy to make them feel at home.
Although the lack of balls at training made preparations far from ideal, Wales won the first leg 2-0 thanks to goals from Allchurch and Dave Bowen.
The return leg was played at Ninian Park three weeks later and Israel enjoyed their trip to Cardiff.
“They went to the cinema on Queen Street and had a great time because foreign travel wasn’t as commonplace as it is now, so it was a great thrill for them,” says Stead.
Wales dominated the game, winning 2-0 as Allchurch again opened the scoring before Jones added a second to seal qualification.
“To know we were going to play at a World Cup was special, particularly as we thought we’d missed out,” says Jones.
“I played with Ivor, who was a Swansea boy like myself, for many seasons at the dear old Vetch Field.
“He was one of the greats, certainly of Welsh football and of any football. It was fitting that somebody of his ability would play at the very top and that was a World Cup.”
Murphy’s attendance at the second leg meant he missed a match in his other role as assistant manager at Manchester United.
The following night on 6 February, 1958, United were travelling back from a European Cup game against Red Star Belgrade via Munich when the team’s plane crashed on the runway at Munich-Riem Airport. The Munich air disaster caused 23 deaths.
As well as helping Matt Busby rebuild a club broken by those tragic events, Murphy had the task of leading Wales at their first World Cup later that year.
Newspaper reports of the era were dismissive of Wales’ chances but they defied expectations to progress from their group – which included 1954 runners-up Hungary, hosts Sweden and Mexico – and set up a quarter-final against Brazil.
“We were written off by some people and we proved them wrong,” says Jones.
“We showed we deserved to be at that level of world football. We performed as well as any Welsh team has performed and we were eventually knocked out by Brazil.
“That was the other thing, we’d heard of players like Vava and Didi but there was a young kid, only 17, called Pele.
“It was amazing to see the skill this young lad had. We said: ‘Who is this kid? Who is he?’
“In some ways, to see the emergence of possibly the greatest footballer that’s ever been was a very special moment. We knew that this lad was going to be the tops.”
Pele scored the only goal in a 1-0 Brazil win, a game tinged with regret for Wales as they were without injured talisman John Charles, targeted by Hungary in the previous match.
It remains Wales’ only World Cup appearance. Their qualification for Euro 2016 ended a 58-year absence from major finals – and their run to the semi-finals eclipsed the achievements of 1958 – but still a second World Cup has proved elusive.
There have been several near misses during that barren spell and now the current side host Austria in a World Cup play-off semi-final, hoping to take another step towards finally ending the 64-year wait.
“I think they’ll perform and they might go and do what we did in 1958 and surprise one or two people,” says Jones.
“Certainly, putting on the red shirt of Wales was always special for myself and many others and I’m sure that still applies to these young men of Wales today.
“I know that Gareth Bale plays at the highest club level but for Gareth, playing at a World Cup would be something very special because he’s a Welsh lad and putting on that Welsh shirt always means something to players.
“It’s great to see Wales having an occasion to perform at that level.”