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Wales 2 Italy 1: Our capital buzzed with a new-shaped fervour; Rhodri Owen savours the moments leading up to a memorable night.

Byline: Rhodri Owen

``WE'LL convert Wales to football,'' was Mark Hughes's stirring pre-match cry. On a wet and windy Wednesday evening, at the shrine of Welsh rugby, that might once have been considered a challenge. But given the glamour of the Italian opposition, and the newfound belief around Wales that Hughes's young team has the potential to end 44 years of hurt by qualifying for a major soccer tournament, last night's electrifying atmosphere in and around the packed Millennium Stadium bode well for the game. In recent years, such a buzz around a sporting event in the capital has traditionally been reserved for rugby. The carnival spirit of Rugby World Cup '99 lingers in the memory, as does the by-now traditional weekend party which surrounds each Six Nations home game. Since the arrival of the FA Cup, Cardiff has grown used to hosting big-time soccer. But last night's game, so key to Welsh fortunes, was undoubtedly the biggest the city has known since the ill-fated World Cup qualifier against Romania in 1993. And the anticipation beforehand was every bit as big, if not bigger, than one might expect before next year's encounter with Clive Woodward's England. On Tuesday night, a full 24 hours before kick-off, the touts were already charging pounds 300 for a pair of tickets. But with the game arranged as a midweek fixture, the pre-match momentum in the capital yesterday afternoon was slow to build up. Walking through Cardiff city centre yesterday lunchtime, one would never have guessed kick-off for such a big game was just hours away.

At around 1.30pm the chain stores, sandwich bars and streets around The Hayes were modestly populated with the regular Wednesday mix of shoppers and office workers.

Mangled umbrellas littering the pavement around the Millennium Stadium suggested another morning of blustery autumn rain had done little to spark off the prematch excitement on the streets.

And only the occasional blue or red scarf on show along Queen Street gave any clue as to what the evening had in store.

But as the afternoon wore on, the noise level within walking distance of the stadium steadily increased. Coaches with windows draped in red began to clog up the traffic, as fans from the soccer hotbeds of north Wales ended their long journey south.

As they did, a group of Welsh fans from west Wales were already unfurling an oversized homemade banner on Church Street. They were keenly proud of their colourful handiwork, but its rather less-than-polite reference to TV's Queen of Mean, Anne Robinson, suggested it was highly unlikely to appear in a TV closeup inside the stadium.

``Did we take the day off?'' joked Damien Williams, who had travelled from Swansea with friends Jamal Meaden, Marc James and Luke Baldrian. ``We've taken the whole week off!''

As the flag, scarf and programme vendors set up their stalls in the winding lanes between Westgate Street and St Mary Street, pale-blue replica shirts bearing the names of Totti, Maldini and Del Piero became more and more visible.

Azzurri fans Alberto Rocco and Giancarlo Rubano had made the trip from Croydon, Surrey.

``We never miss an Italy game in Britain,'' explained Alberto, ``and we're really looking forward to seeing the Millennium Stadium for the first time.''

As the kick-off drew nearer, the streets around the stadium were becoming crowded with fans from all over Wales and further afield.

``We didn't want to miss it for anything,'' said Andrew Evans, who travelled from Maesteg to watch the game. ``My mate even paid pounds 50 for his ticket.'' At which point his embarrassed mate disappeared into the crowd.

By 7pm, a full three-quarters of an hour before the game was due to start, thousands were flocking into the stadium for the Manic Street Preachers, bringing some more glamour - as if more were needed - to the fixture.

``The atmosphere's just as good, if not better, than the rugby,'' said Amanda Thomas from Cardiff. ``At least Wales are doing well at football, and it's nice to be optimistic before a game.''

Watching the game was a family affair for Giovanni and Betty Rizzi and their daughter Lisa, who were poised on the doorstep of the Topo Gigio Restaurant.

Originally from Firenze, Giovanni has lived in Cardiff for several years.

``We weren't able to get tickets but we're going to find somewhere where there's a lot of Italian fans to watch the game on television,'' he explained.

``I can tell you, the Italian fans will be out for a good time.''

With both her husband and daughter sporting blue, Betty, from Cardiff, said she had little choice but to follow suit by supporting Italy.

Rino Telles, a hairdresser who has lived in Cardiff for the past 30 years, was waiting for no fewer than 60 of his compatriots from Salerno and Napoli to arrive in the city for the game.

He said he thought they might be a little worried before the game about the quality of the Welsh team, but not after the opening whistle.

``It's the wrong shaped ball for a Welsh victory,'' he laughed.

CAPTION(S):

VISITORS: Fans of the Italian team enjoy the Cardiff atmosphere; FLAG DAY: A Welsh fan in optimistic mood before the game
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUW
Date:Oct 17, 2002
Words:873
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