YUGOSLAVIA 2 WALES 0 – EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIP QUARTER FINAL 1st LEG – Maksimir Stadium, Zagreb – 24th April 1976

Wales had waited 18 years to appear on the big stage again, after their excellent World Cup campaign in 1958 where they had run Pele and Brazil close in the quarter final, only losing 1-0. A qualification group containing Austria, Hungary and Luxembourg had climaxed with a 1-0 win over the Austrians in Wrexham with home town hero Arfon Griffiths grabbing the goal on his international debut.

Griffiths was a prime example of the journeyman nature of the Welsh squad. He had plied his entire career at Wrexham, bar a 15 game spell at Arsenal in the 1961-62 season. A look down the Welsh side for that day sees a sprinkling of real talent in Leighton James, Brian Flynn, Terry Yorath and John Toshack in among the likes of Malcolm Page, Rod Thomas and Ian Evans.

Preparations for this quarter final tie were hampered by the ongoing Football League programme which meant that the side could only meet up two days before the game. In stark contrast, the Yugoslavs had been given three weeks to prepare for the tie and were strong favourites to progress to the last four, with the added incentive of having been selected as the hosts should they qualify. There side contained the core of the team that had ended Scotland’s World Cup hopes in West Germany almost two years before.

As was the norm in those days coverage of the game played second fiddle to the normal weekend Football League programme and highlights of the match were only shown in a few ITV regions on Sunday afternoon, with Hugh Johns providing the commentary. I have only been able to locate very brief highlights on the internet.

The contrast in the sides preparatory time was shown in the starkest contrast in the opening minute as Yugoslavia took the lead. A long range effort on goal fortuitously found it’s way to the feet of Mamcilo Vukotic who controlled the ball neatly before firing an effort low and hard past the despairing Dai Davies.

With the game taking place over two legs, a 1-0 defeat away from home would not have been a disaster, so Wales set about digging in and ensuring that things got no worse. This plan of consolidation worked to a point but also invited pressure on their goal and blunted any real attacking ambitions they may have had.

The plan worked up to a point, but 10 minutes into the second half the Yugoslavs struck a decisive blow. The ball was spread out to the left hand side where Acimovic wrongfooted a defender and delivered a ball toward the back post where the ball was headed back across goal. The ball may have been drifting in but Danilo Popivoda made sure, sliding in to force the ball over the line to double the Yugoslav lead.

A 2-0 defeat was not a disaster but it did leave the Welsh with a mountain to climb in the second leg at Ninian Park four weeks later, an afternoon which would prove to be a controversial one.

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