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Life in the bus lane: Mismatch of the Day.

Byline: Martin Wells

C'EST magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre.

Pardon my French, but I couldn't help thinking of that famous quote - supposedly said about the Charge of the Light Brigade - when reflecting on Wales' demolition of Azerbaijan at the weekend.

It was magnificent, for all sorts of reasons, but I'm not sure it was football.

For a start, the oiks who turned out for the opposition could hardly have been called footballers.

A colleague claims he spotted the ``Azeri'' in their city centre hotel while he was watching the Wales rugby debacle (pardon my French again). This was just an hour or so before they were meant to be kicking off against Mark Hughes' allconquering heroes.

He swears it was them, sat meekly around a few tables, knocking back their Smirnoff Ices and comparing the souvenirs they'd bought that morning at Primark.

At three o'clock, the manager rounded them up and off they sloped to the Millennium Stadium, like naughty schoolboys, slightly the worse for wear but looking forward to their tour of the ground and placing bets on who'd be the first to get Ryan Giggs' autograph.

Well, they certainly looked more like a bunch of awestruck asylum-seekers than the finest footballers of their generation.

As another of their passes went straight to a red shirt, as a rare attempt on goal went scudding towards the corner flag, as another ``Azeri'' fell over his bootlaces and wondered which way he was meant to be kicking, as four, count 'em, four defenders gave a passable impression of the Marx Brothers to let in the first goal, I reasoned that either we were watching 11 impost-ers who'd hijacked the team bus as it went through the Channel Tunnel, or here was one team that could throw away its Portuguese phrasebooks.

The weather, too, added to the impression that we'd turned up on the wrong day to the wrong event.

I mean, blokes in shorts and sunglasses, knocking back buckets of Coke, trying to work Factor 25 into their sons' cheeks without spoiling the dragon they'd just had face-painted on by a bloke in Westgate Street charging pounds 1 a time.

This wasn't how I remembered watching football as a kid, when it got dark before half-time, rained all the way through the game and you wore a daft woolly hat - not to show allegiance to your team but to keep out the biting north wind blowing through the girders in the stand. If we'd taken our seats in the Millennium Stadium and seen a bull and a matador stride out to the sound of a mariachi band, instead of the Welsh football team, I wouldn't have been surprised.

It was that glorious. Aside from the weather and the quality of the opposition, it was, of course, the whole atmosphere in the ground that disoriented me.

Watching Wales play football has become less a pledge of allegiance to a flag and more an opportunity for families to spend quality time together. For me, it's a chance to show my sons that football isn't an excuse to physically and verbally abuse people - be it opposing fans, players or the match officials. It's a chance to marvel at and enjoy a demonstration of physical strength, speed and mind-boggling skill, in the company of good-natured, like-minded people.

Yes it was magnificent, but it wasn't football. Well, not Nationwide League football anyway.
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Title Annotation:Comment
Publication:South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Apr 2, 2003
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