25 May ~ Sunday's 2-0 defeat for Wales away at a team ranked ninth in the FIFA world rankings is on the face of it not a bad result. They conceded a goal in each half to Croatia but, while conceding the majority of possession to their opponents, could have taken the lead themselves when they had a goal disallowed with Simon Church being narrowly (though correctly) ruled offside. However, what turned a narrow defeat into a moral victory was the fact that Wales fielded a team missing 15 players.
Long-term injuries were always going to keep out key individuals such as Aaron Ramsey and Jack Collison, while the Championship play-off final between Blackpool and Cardiff saw another three missing. Before the squad announcement manager John Toshack also knew that he would be without Gareth Bale and Joe Allen due to injuries. What he probably didn't expect, however, was that of the 21-man squad named, another eight would pull out.
It would not be right to criticise any one player but withdrawals due to a variety of reasons ranging from injury, personal circumstances and an impending transfer, do suggest that there is a worrying apathy among the Welsh squad. This friendly match was seen as key preparation for the forthcoming Euro 2012 qualifying campaign and, having consulted the players, it was the only friendly match Wales had committed to at the end of a busy season. Used to withdrawals, the scale this time probably even surprised Toshack himself. He said diplomatically: "It's disappointing and unfortunate we had the amount of players missing we have, we arranged this game with the Montenegro match in mind in September because it will be a similar type of atmosphere."
To supplement the squad Toshack had to call up four of the Under-21 players who played the previous Tuesday in Austria and, even then, he travelled to Croatia with a squad of only 17. Every player was given a chance in a match that saw five make their international debuts. These included a non-League player (Neil Taylor from Wrexham) and Mark Bradley, a player just deemed surplus to requirements by League One side Walsall. That you call up a non-League defender into your team is surprising enough but the fact he has to come on to play in midfield just illustrates the problems Wales faced.
Contrast this with Slaven Bilic's Croatia, for which this was one of three consecutive friendlies being played. The Croats had virtually a full squad to choose from as they geared themselves up for the forthcoming qualifiers. They, unlike the Welsh, seem intent on preparing seriously for Euro 2012 and this will no doubt be reflected in the success of their respective campaigns. Paul Ashley-Jones