Euro 2016: History beckons Wales again in Israel

By Rob PhillipsBBC Wales football correspondent
John Charles (left) and Gareth Bale (right)
John Charles (left) and Gareth Bale (right) - the Wales stars of their eras

It's not exactly history repeating itself, but Israel again loom large as Wales look for a place in a major tournament final after their gutsy 0-0 draw with Group B favourites Belgium in Brussels.

The next assignment in their quest for a place in France for the Euro 2016 finals is a trip to play Israel on 28 March next year.

The historic relevance of Israel to Wales' all-too-sporadic brush with success cannot be underestimated. Neither can Israel's current form.

Top seeds Bosnia-Hercegovina are already struggling to stay in contention with just two points from their opening four games.

Meanwhile, Wales remain unbeaten - even after a trip to play a Belgium side ranked fourth in the world.

Israel's forward Omer Damari (right)celebrates scoring against Bosnia-Hercegovina
Israel's forward Omer Damari (right) celebrates scoring against Bosnia-Hercegovina

And yet in a group already notable for surprise results, the biggest shock has to be the surge of Israel to the top of the pool.

Soon after Wales had frustrated Belgium, Israel leapt into pole position with a 3-0 thumping of Bosnia-Hercegovina.

It will still be a surprise if Belgium do not strong-arm their way to qualification, however, so Wales' hopes of of a top-two spot may depend heavily on their next game.

Israel are now the side to beat - a thought no doubt shared by Belgium's Eden Hazard and company who visit the Middle East three days after Wales.

The Israel-Belgium clash - postponed from the opening round of the group for security reasons - coming so soon after Wales play, suggests those few days at the end of March could be huge in shaping next autumn's section climax.

Welsh football historians will be well aware of the significance of Israel standing in the way of their long-awaited return to a major tournament finals.

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The last time Wales qualified for a major finals was the World Cup in 1958, when the legendary John Charles graced the event in Sweden.

Wales made it to the finals for the very first time that year because of the effects of politics on sport.

Israel had won their section by default as no African or Asian country would play them following the Suez crisis of 1956.

With Fifa unwilling to allow a team into the World Cup finals without playing a match, Jimmy Murphy's Wales - who had finished behind Czechoslovakia in their qualification group - went into the so-called lucky losers' draw with eight other European runners-up to play off against Israel.

Legend has it the Jules Rimet trophy was used for the draw.

Belgium were actually pulled out first - but passed up the opportunity to play.

The next name out was Wales. They had no such hesitation. Murphy's men really were astonishingly lucky losers.

They travelled to Tel Aviv in January 1958 and emerged with a 2-0 win thanks to goals from Ivor Allchurch and Dave Bowen.

The second leg posed a problem for part-time national team manager Murphy, who was also the assistant to Sir Matt Busby at Manchester United.

On 5 February, 1958 - the same day as Wales were playing Israel in Cardiff - United had an away game with Red Star Belgrade in the European Cup.

Murphy's club-or-country dilemma was solved by Busby. He felt his assistant's place was with Wales.

As United were drawing 3-3 in Belgrade, Wales eased to their first World Cup finals with another 2-0 win over Israel - Allchurch striking again, with Cliff Jones also on the scoresheet.

The Wales boss returned to Manchester. Some of his United colleagues did not - they perished in the in Munich air disaster on a stop to refuel.

Aaron Ramsey challenges Axel Witsel
Wales' Aaron Ramsey challenges Belgium's Axel Witsel in their 0-0 draw in Brussels

Had it not been for the play off second leg, Murphy would have been on that plane. Wales' World Cup fortune may well have saved Murphy's life.

Amid the tragedy, Murphy and his side had ensured their places in Welsh football history by representing their nation with distinction in the 1958 finals.

They reached the quarter-finals in the competition, where they lost 1-0 to eventual winners Brazil.

The goal that eliminated Wales was scored by an up and coming teenage striker who went on to be lauded as perhaps the greatest footballer of all - Pele.

With due respect to the Wales team of 1976 - who reached the European Championship quarter-finals, played under a different format - Welsh football has waited since for a team to emulate the achievement of Charles, Jones and Allchurch.

How fitting, then, that Israel should again provide a significant hurdle to Gareth Bale and company as they bid to make history of their own.

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