DOHA, Qatar – For most of the national team captains who make it to the World Cup finals, the dream is to be the one left carrying the trophy at Lusail Stadium on December 18th. He’s in Qatar to win matches, that’s obvious, but there’s also something bigger at play. He’s hopeful that when the World Cup rolls around in 2042, another player is captaining a Welsh side on football’s biggest stage with the memory of 2022 stuck in his head.
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This is the first World Cup for Wales in Bale’s life and he talks about his childhood memories of the competition being tainted because his country did not exist. But he hopes after leading Wales to their first qualifier since 1958 that there will be youngsters at home watching the games against the United States, Iran – whom they face on Friday – and England, and that they will follow his example.
“As a kid I used to dream of seeing Wales in the World Cup but to be in the team that has already achieved that is an incredible feeling and an honor to be able to do that for the country,” Bale said. “For young people growing up now, having Wales in the World Cup, even if they don’t realize it now, it’s an amazing experience for them. It’s an experience I wish I had.
“By doing what we’ve done, I hope we’ll have a strong national team in the future and in 20 years they’re sitting where I’d say now is Wales’ qualification for the World Cup in 2022 is what inspired me for them to play football and love it.”
Bale, who won the Champions League five times while at Real Madrid, has done a lot to make football in his country relevant again. Wales’ last great player, Ryan Giggs, was regularly criticized for putting his club, Manchester United, ahead of his country, and despite making his international debut as a teenager in 1991, didn’t play a friendly match until 2000. Giggs’ decisions about it The non-competitive matches were heavily influenced by then United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, who wanted to keep his quality players as much as possible, but at times created a feeling that Welsh football was unimportant, particularly as many in Wales were already considering rugby. federation to be their national sport.
Giggs played 963 times for United during a career spanning 23 years but only made 64 appearances for Wales. In contrast, when Bale starts against Iran at Al Rayyan Stadium, he will win his 110th match. He hopes to add more in Qatar by taking them out of the group, just as Wales did at the European Championships in 2016 – their first major tournament in 58 years – and the Euros in 2020, which was played in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Their run to the Euro semi-finals six years ago may have been a stretch, but the credible 1-1 draw against the USA in their first match opened up the possibility of advancing from Group B and setting up a last-16 match against the Netherlands.
There is also more at stake. Wales has been particularly hard hit by the UK’s cost of living crisis, with research by the Abrdn Financial Fairness Trust and the University of Bristol finding that 22% of households have had to cut costs drastically To deal with rising food prices and energy bills.
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Wales coach Rob Page took advantage of his press conference ahead of the opening match against the United States to say he hoped his side could offer some light relief to people who may be struggling back home. He also particularly praised the fans who spent thousands of pounds to travel to Qatar to support the players.
“I have nothing but praise for Red Wall and our supporters, they have played a huge part in helping us qualify for the World Cup,” Page said. “The commitment they keep showing by coming to support us is incredible. We haven’t qualified for many major tournaments and I think they just want to be a part of it.
“Until the last one in the Eurozone they couldn’t travel because of COVID so I think that drove more to want to come to Qatar. I have nothing but praise and respect because it’s a big, big commitment.”
Not only has World Cup fever hit Doha, it has also traveled right across Wales, from Cardiff and Swansea on the south coast to Wrexham in the north.
“We get videos and pictures sent from home in our WhatsApp group and friends sending things,” Bell said. “You can see the flags up, bucket hats and t-shirts up so we can feel the hustle at home.
“Watching the World Cups growing up, it was always a little frustrating because Wales didn’t exist. As a kid your country didn’t play in the World Cup, it takes a little bit of specialization away from it.
“For us to be the team that crosses the line is unbelievable. It is important to grow football in our country and inspire another generation to get more children to play football.”
Bale’s first World Cup memory was France 98 but not because of a specific match or goal, but rather because he had a pencil bag with the tournament’s logo on it. Generations of fans have been close to them, but Bell and Page have ensured there is a real connection now by sharing the stage with the likes of England, Argentina and Brazil.
Wales, a country of more than three million people – a similar figure to Iowa – whose top domestic teams play in the English league system, is targeting a spot in the Qatar knockout stage and a spot among the top 16 teams in the world. However, there is a sense that what they have already achieved off the field is of much greater importance.