Article excerpt

Byline: Mario Risoli

Soccer writer Mario Risoli looks ahead to a new season that could end in international glory

THE sun will shine over the Vetch, Millmoor and the Racecourse Ground today as Welsh football embarks on what could be a momentous season.

But it is the thought of watching Mark Hughes' side under the Portuguese sun that will drive Welsh football through the autumn and hopefully beyond.

After years of Wales being the whipping boys on the international scene, suffering humiliating defeats in Tbilisi, Eindhoven and Istanbul, Hughes' resurgent team are on the brink of reaching next year's European Championship finals in Portugal.

And not through the back door, either. Teams that finish second in their group will be forced into a two-legged play-off in November to decide if they will be packing their bags for the Iberian peninsula.

But after winning their first four Euro 2004 qualifiers, Wales have a terrific chance of topping Group Nine and qualifying automatically for the tournament.

If Hughes' Dragons can hold their nerve in their final four matches then they will qualify for their first major international tournament since 1958.

Wales take on Serbia-Montenegro in Belgrade later this month before jetting out to Milan to face Italy in September in what looks to be the crunch match.

Two matches on home soil, against Finland and Serbia-Montenegro, will follow before frenzied Millennium Stadium crowds bursting to capacity.

And there is a genuine feeling that this Welsh side - an excellent mix of precocious young talent and solid older heads - can make it to Portugal.

Hughes is in charge of the best Welsh team for a decade. He can call on Premier League stars such as Ryan Giggs, Craig Bellamy and Simon Davies, while Gary Speed, John Hartson, Mark Pembridge and Andy Melville provide invaluable experience.

Yet it has been the manner of the team's performances which has lifted a nation that has tasted football woe for so long.

The results have not been flukes. As they proved against Finland in Helsinki and Italy in Cardiff, Wales are now a match for any side in the world.

The Welsh defence, once the laughing stock of the international game, no longer leaks goals like a sieve while Hughes has forwards who can win matches in a moment of brilliance.

On the domestic front, the future also looks bright.

Cardiff City are back in the top two divisions for the first time in 18 years.

A club that has, by and large, wallowed in the dungeons of the Football League since 1985 now finds itself rubbing shoulders alongside West Ham, Sunderland, Ipswich, West Brom and Norwich.

As Bluebirds boss Lennie Lawrence said earlier this week, City are back in the big time. …