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'The Best Free-Kick I've Seen In My Life'

Not our words. The words of Wales' manager Rob Page. Now, of course, Page is a little biased, seeing as Gareth Bale's free-kick set Wales on their way to a famous, hard-fought, generally brilliant victory, and took everybody, Page included, one step closer to the World Cup. But, well, we think he might be right.
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Let's consider the evidence. Power? Yes, enough to see the keeper well beaten. Placement? It flew into the tiny postage stamp in the upper-right corner of the usual postage stamp. Into the toppest and tightest and narrowest of bins. Weird and slightly otherworldly movement? Oh yes. The ball soared up shouting and then plummeted down, screaming like Icarus.
But football isn't just about being good. Football is about looking good, and this free-kick looked perfect. Up and over a wall at full extension, and onto the underside of the bar: the pinch of the salt that sweetens the parabola. And the keeper! The poor, poor keeper. As he comes over his goal and catches sight of the ball his knees buckle and he crumples, helpless, as if the clouds had suddenly parted and he'd laid eyes on something awesome and terrible.
We're also giving the goal an extra point because at least one watching writer — for privacy's sake, let's call him A. Thomas — said, out loud, "Come on. He's clearly not fit, give it Wilson." The precise and distant opposite of "called it".
And, of course, and most importantly: moment. The game hung in the balance. Wales had started well but hadn't established anything like control; there was enterprise and intent but it was skittish, nervous, imprecise. Austria hit the bar early. Austria were coming back into it. Austria had the edge in midfield. Austria, Austria, Aus— BALE!

Gareth Bale of Wales celebrates after scoring a goal during the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifier knockout round play-off match between Wales and Austria at Cardiff City Stadium

Image credit: Getty Images

Goals change games, and this goal rewrote the evening entirely. Wales were immediately calmed; the crowd immediately energised. And with Austria now needing to force the issue, the home side could spend their time releasing runners into the wide-open spaces. The second goal came and things got calmer; Austria pulled one back and they got horribly nervous again. But at nil-nil, Wales looked like uncertain of their place in the game. Once Bale scored, things were moving.
Now, as perfect and perfectly timed as the free-kick was, it shouldn't be allowed to take all the attention. For a start, there was Bale's other goal; his second-best of the evening, but not by much. A lovely little flick to take it away from Ben Davies — thanks Ben, I'll take it from here — and then a quietly remarkable finish, right back across himself with power, and with almost no angle to play with.
And then there was Neco Williams, busy and brilliant on the entire left flank. There was Dan James, working tirelessly to get himself into great positions and make chances for himself to miss: that doesn't sound like much of a compliment but is absolutely meant as one. You can run through the whole team and find something good to say about everybody. Even Wayne Hennessey, who doesn't play much football these days, made all the big catches he had to, and was only beaten by a peculiar deflection.
There are teams that are obviously cowed by the presence of a superstar in their midst, a historical presence in the present. Wales are precisely the opposite: Bale is the catalyst, first among equals. Admired but also liked; idolised but also respected. He works with them and they work with him, equals in standing if not in ability, and so Wales benefit not just from one of the greatest footballers of all time, but also the best possible Joe Rodon of Joe Rodon's moment, the best possible Ben Davies that Ben Davies can manage, and so on all through the team. Team-building is a less spectacular sporting achievement than the perfect free-kick, but without the former we might never have seen the latter.
Perhaps it's impossible to proclaim this free-kick the greatest of all time. There's been a lot of football, a lot of important football, and subjectivity is woven into it all. But it certainly could be, and that's more than enough. Incidentally, did you know "top bin" is in the Oxford English Dictionary? "Either of the top corners of the goal; (also) a goal scored by kicking the ball into either of the top corners." If you're reading, lexicographers, and you're looking for a picture, there's a free-kick I'd like to recommend...

Gareth Bale of Wales celebrates following their side's victory in the 2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifier knockout round play-off match between Wales and Austria at Cardiff City Stadium

Image credit: Getty Images

Mamma Mia

Czechoslovakia, '76 and '78. Denmark, '92 and '94. Greece, '04 and '06. And now Italy, the latest European champions to fail to make the following World Cup. They didn't make the one before it, either. Does anybody know the Italian for "seriously Italy no joking please, just don't play again World Cup not suited to u pal your c*** no hard feelings just not worked out"?
Zoom out a little further and things get even weirder. 2006: World Cup winners. 2010: out in the group stage, bottom of the group, winless. 2014: out in the group stage, just the one win. 2018: didn't qualify. 2022: also nope. By the time 2026 comes around, it will have been fully 20 years with just one victory. That came over England, obviously.
We can be fairly clear what the problem is. There cannot be a worse team in all international football at turning shots into goals. In all they had 32 attempts at North Macedonia's goal. Only five of them were on target, and none of them went in. Earlier, in the group stage, they outshot Bulgaria 27-4 and drew 1-1.
It is going to be fascinating to see where the blame lands. There's an obvious and pressing need to try something else up front; something else in addition to 'get Enrico Chiesa fit and keep him fit'. You'd assume that Roberto Mancini has enough credit in the bank to keep his job, if he wants to keep it, and oversee this attacking reinvention. But Ciro Immobile, Lorenzo Insigne, Domenico Berardi… perhaps not. And Mancini won't be making an immediate decision.
Now it is too early to talk about the future. We still have to digest this defeat. On a human level, I can say that I love these lads more tonight than after the triumph in July. The disappointment is enormous.
Anyway, there's always 2026. If Italy can't work out how to make themselves one of the 32 best teams in the world, they surely can't fail to establish themselves as one of the best 48. Once they're there, they'll probably win the thing. And they'll definitely beat England.

RETRO CORNER

A very happy retirement to Jermain Defoe, who has spent 22 years scoring goals and being just that little bit better than everybody thinks. And as proof of that, the Warm-Up just tried to remember how many caps and goals he'd got for England. Then we looked up the answer, and we were well under. Sorry, Jermain. (Answer below, if you'd like to play along.)
And while we're remembering his finest moments, here he is gratefully accepting some free custard.

HAT TIP

Mike Bassett: England Manager is over 20 years old. And yet, as the Athletic's Nick Miller points out in his excellent oral history, it still stands up: a "cultural touchstone", its best lines "having entered the general football consciousness". Just as no heavy rock band will ever truly be free of the long shadow of Spinal Tap, so every England manager, however sensible or sophisticated, seems to be one bad result away from going "four-four-f***ing-two".
And Bassett, as played by Ricky Tomlinson, is perfect. It wouldn't work otherwise. Precisely the right blend of clattering comedy and bruised nobility. As the film's co-writer Rob Sprackling puts it, about real-life inspirations Graham Taylor and Bobby Robson:
Genuinely good men. They struck me as really honourable men who were deeply passionate about their country, more patriotic than probably any fan and just desperately wanted to do well, but just didn’t have the skills to achieve that. It’s a tragedy in a way, that someone would take this job, which is going to destroy you and your family and your mental health and going to leave you as a national joke, but you’re doing it for love and because you want to help people in wanting to make this good. That’s really a terrible tragedy, but also very, very funny … you are both a comic and a tragic character at the same time.

COMING UP

In theory, if you've got the time and right streaming options, you could watch back-to-back-to-back African qualifying play-offs today. DR Congo vs. Morocco into Cameroon vs. Algeria, say, then onto Ghana vs. Nigeria. But if that doesn't work for you then there's a few friendlies happening across Europe: France vs. Ivory Coast seems the most interesting of the bunch. And if you really want to stay up late then Argentina, who have already qualified, are hosting Venezuela, who can't.
Jermain Defoe got 57 caps for England, the first in 2004 and the last in 2017. He scored 20 goals. Pretty good going, all told. Have a great weekend.
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