Wales’ World Cup dream starts again … 64 years later

Few Wales fans can remember their last World Cup campaign, and fewer still have ever seen a Wales team like this one.

Gareth Bale celebrating after winning World Cup qualification
Gareth Bale has led his golden team to World Cup qualification for the first time in 64 years [Rebecca Naden/Reuters]

Previous World Cup appearances: 1
Titles: 0
Best finish: Quarter-finals (1958)
World Cup record: W1 L1 D3
Goals: 4
Biggest win: 2-1 vs Hungary (1958)
Player to watch: Gareth Bale
Ranking: 19
Fixtures: USA (November 21), Iran (November 25), England (November 29)

It has been 64 long years since Pele’s first World Cup goal ended Wales’ 1958 campaign.

Football fell out of fashion, especially in the rugby-playing Welsh heartlands, as fans endured decades of disappointment.

But something changed in 2016. And it was nothing less than the emergence of a new golden generation. Led by former Real Madrid and Tottenham superstar Gareth Bale, these new gladiators of Wales – Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen and Wayne Hennessey – recaptured the hearts and imaginations of the nation as they stormed to the Euro 2016 semi-final.

Four years later, a run to the quarter-finals of Euro 2020 did nothing to dampen the fires they had stoked back home. Suddenly, it seemed, Wales could play football.

The roots of this success go back much further, with many pointing to the hardworking and honest Gary Speed’s tenure as manager as the catalyst for Wales’s changing fortunes.

In the four years after his untimely death in 2011, Wales rose 109 places up the rankings, from 117 to eight.

“Gary started this 12, 13 years ago, and the changes he made, the professionalism he brought in, he led with those standards,” former Watford captain Rob Page, who has managed Wales since November 2020, told a gathering at the Senedd, the Welsh parliament. “I see that in Gareth [Bale] today, how he leads.”

Wales faced a tough European qualifying campaign under Page to make it to Qatar, but finished second in a group featuring Belgium, ranked second in the world, and the Czech Republic.

Playoff victories over Austria and Ukraine in front of a jubilant home crowd followed, and Wales were booking their flights to Doha.

While Page takes with him to Qatar a team with a wealth of experience, he must suspect these may be some of the last internationals played by this group. Luckily for Page, and for the rest of Wales, he has 21-year-old Brennan Johnson to provide some fresh legs when the more senior players tire, and to build continuity for the future.

Watch out for his name on the scorecard in Qatar.

Facing England, the USA and Iran in their group, Wales will have high hopes of making it to the knockout stages. If they can keep their veterans injury-free, they’ll stand a chance of progressing further.

Regardless of what happens in Qatar, there is a new pride in Wales at booking their place at the World Cup.

“Yma o hyd, you sons of Speed,” actor Michael Sheen told the squad. “As they fall around us, we’re still here!”

Source: Al Jazeera