Wales reporter notebook: A nation braced for a moment in history


The moment has arrived for Wales.

Robert Page’s side kick off their first World Cup finals campaign since 1958 against the United States next Monday and also face Iran and England in Group B.

On the eve of the tournament, Sky Sports News senior reporter Geraint Hughes provides his first diary entry from Doha as part of our World Cup Podcast series…

‘Wales can get out of Group B’

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Wales defender Ethan Ampadu says there is an excitement amongst the Wales camp as they get ready for their first World Cup group game against the USA.

“This is a moment in history for Wales. A first World Cup in 64 years… yes, they’ve been to back-to-back Euros but the Holy Grail was to get Wales to a World Cup and the group of players who have been to those two European Championships have done that.

“In a way, it means something more. It’s not just a one-off or a fluke.

“It’s part of a generation of players who have been serial qualifiers and who are trying to make the seeds of football in Wales stronger so that there isn’t another 64-year wait until the next time.

“They’re very much aware of their place in history, apart from the fact in the short-term they just want to get onto the pitch against the USA.

“The ultimate aim for these guys is that they really believe if they keep everyone fit, they can get out of the group.

“There’s loyalty in this group. Joe Allen isn’t anywhere near being fit and is certain to miss the first game, but he’s out here partly out of loyalty for what he’s done for Wales.

“He can be a calm head, a wise head on the training pitch, and if they can get him fit for half an hour against Iran – bringing on a player of that experience and know-how, that would be a huge bonus for Wales.

“It all comes down to loyalty and Rob Page is being loyal to the players who got them to this situation.”

Who are the key players in Wales’ squad?

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Wales defender Chris Mepham looks ahead to their opening clash against the USA, and his ambitions of getting into the side to help the country progress as far as they can in the tournament.

“Bale is the talisman and he is the one who frightens anyone he plays against, even if he’s quiet for 89 minutes and 45 seconds he still manages to do something.

“The player who makes Wales purr and is dangerous throughout the whole game, however, is Aaron Ramsey. The fact he’s been getting more minutes on the pitch at Nice is really encouraging.

“Anything that Wales do that’s good other than a one-off moment from Bale comes through Ramsey. He’s the Rolls-Royce that purrs through games.

“He creates things for the likes of Bale, Dan James, Kieffer Moore and Brennan Johnson.”

‘Speed – the catalyst for change’

Gary Speed revolutionised Wales' football team
Image: Gary Speed revolutionised Wales’ football team

Wales were playing in front of 7,553 fans at Wrexham’s Racecourse stadium as recently as February 2008 under John Toshack.

The country’s rise as a footballing nation coincided with the Cardiff City Stadium being made the permanent home venue.

Even after Nations League promotion, the Red Wall – Wales’ hardcore support – were firmly against moving back to the Principality Stadium, where they played in the early part of this century and beat the likes of Italy in 2002.

Cardiff’s home ground offers a better atmosphere and is viewed more as a football stadium which gives them home advantage. The FAW have listened to those supporters, and the wishes of the players, to create a united front.

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The Wales squad delayed their training session in Qatar by more than two hours due to the extreme heat.

“There’s never been a terrible relationship with Welsh fans. In fairness to the diehard Wales supporters, they have been through some horrible experiences. Thinking of smashings by Serbia, and the team was not playing well at all around 15 years ago. Gary Speed was seen as the catalyst in the change.

“You talk about through thick and thin – well, there’s been an awful lot of thin. But the fans have always gone in decent numbers. At the start, yes they didn’t fill out the Cardiff City Stadium but, on away trips when the team were getting thumped, there were still 2,000 to 3,000 Wales fans going abroad following the team.

“That takes some doing – so they’ve been loyal. There’s unconditional love and support for the team. What you’re seeing now is a successful team and a successful Football Association that has seen the merits of bonding with the fan group.

“They call it the Red Wall. The Cardiff City Stadium now is always full and they could easily take 30,000 fans to Qatar. Anyone who remembers the first group game in 2016 against Slovakia, there were 30,000 Welsh fans in Bordeaux.

“There are difficulties in going to Qatar as it’s expensive and there is limited accommodation. I would say there will be roughly 3,000 Wales fans travelling out from the UK on top of around 500 to 1,000 ex-pats living in the region.”

Who starts against USA?

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The FAW’s head of public relations, Ian Gwyn Hughes says Wales’ only previous appearance at a World Cup in 1958 could have had a different outcome had it not been for an injury to their star player, John Charles.

“If everyone is fit who is expected to be fit in time for the opener against USA I think Robert Page is 99.9 per cent certain on his starting XI. I think he’ll go with a back three with two wing-backs – them being Neco Williams and Connor Roberts.

“I think the back three will be Chris Mepham, Ben Davies and Joe Rodon. I think Ethan Ampadu will play in defensive midfield as Joe Allen won’t be able to start, which brings in Joe Morrell.

“Then, you’ve got your attacking options: Aaron Ramsey, Dan James, Gareth Bale, Brennan Johnson, Kieffer Moore and Harry Wilson. It will be three of those six.

“In terms of the goalkeeper, Danny Ward’s form has really picked up at Leicester of late but Page has been loyal to Wayne Hennessey. If you watch back the highlights of the play-off against Ukraine, Hennessey pulled off a string of worldies that night. Rob Page doesn’t forget.”

Beating England still key to being viewed as a success?

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Welsh singer, Dafydd Iwan whose song ‘Yma o Hyd’ is Wales’ official World Cup anthem, says the meaning of the track has captured the spirit of Welsh football.

“None of Wales’ success at this tournament will revolve purely around beating England. I think when Wales were drawn against them, the fans just thought, ‘oh, not again’. Why go to a tournament half the way around the world to play your nearest, noisy neighbours?

“In the past, the meetings have turned out not to be the greatest in the world. They’ve usually become very tactical as they know each other very well.

“Don’t get me wrong, if Wales get a draw or even beat England, it will be well enjoyed – but the number one target is to get out of the group. As it’s the last game of the group, we don’t know what the circumstances will be yet, but both will hope to have qualified for the knockouts by then.

“It’s been well-documented how Wales will want to conserve minutes for the likes of Bale and Ramsey. If Wales are in a strong position of perhaps having already qualified, I don’t want to tempt fate, but perhaps Wales would then put out a B team. But in terms of this being a grudge match, Wales and England are beyond that now. The importance of getting out of the group is far greater.”

What are your expectations for Qatar as a World Cup host?

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The Wales squad have arrived in Doha ahead of the 2022 World Cup for their first campaign since 1958.

Wales are determined to speak out about human rights and LGBT issues surrounding the World Cup.

Qatar has come under intense pressure over its treatment of foreign workers and restrictive social laws, leading many participating teams to raise concerns. The country has denied claims that workers were exploited.

“This is my sixth World Cup. The first one was back in 2002. It’s always involved a lot of travel. That’s all part of being at a World Cup – seeing a different culture. But with this World Cup, everything is within 35 miles.

“I’ve been to Doha before and I remember I once went to the top of one stadium, and I could see three or four other stadiums. Everything is so close, and comparisons can be made with an Olympics.

“The way they are running part of it is along an Olympic model with a main centre where all the press conferences will take place. I’m going out there with an open mind and I’m perfectly happy to put on the record that I have some reservations about going to Qatar.

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Qatar’s World Cup chief, Nasser Al Khater has given assurances to LGBTQ+ fans that they will be welcomed at the tournament.

“I’ve had some conversations with my wife and my family about whether I was comfortable going. I’ve been to Qatar before and it wasn’t the greatest experience of my life.

“I have huge sympathy for the LGBTQ+ community who I’ve talked to at length to get a better understanding of their views. I’m not fully at peace with some of the statements that Qatar’s Supreme Committee and FIFA have released.

“We’re going to another country where we must respect their culture, their rules and their laws, but the World Cup is a global event. If you want the world to come in, there’s got to be scope for compromise.”

What is Wales’ potential route to the final?*

If Wales win Group B….

Sunday December 4 – Last 16: England/Wales vs Ecuador (Al Bayt Stadium, Al Khor; kick-off 7pm)

Saturday December 10 – Quarter-final: England/Wales vs France (Al Bayt Stadium, Al Khor; kick-off 7pm)

Wednesday December 14 – Semi-final: England/Wales vs Belgium (Al Bayt Stadium, Al Khor; kick-off 7pm)

Sunday December 18 – Final: England/Wales vs Netherlands (Lusail Iconic Stadium, Lusail; kick-off 3pm)

If Wales finish second in Group B…

Saturday December 3 – Last 16: Netherlands vs England/Wales (Khalifa International Stadium, Al Rayyan; kick-off 3pm)

Friday December 9 – Quarter-final: England/Wales vs Argentina (Lusail Iconic Stadium, Lusail; 7pm)

Tuesday December 13 – Semi-final: England/Wales vs Brazil (Lusail Iconic Stadium, Lusail; kick-off 7pm)

Sunday December 18 – Final: England/Wales vs France (Lusail Iconic Stadium, Lusail; kick-off 3pm)

*Based on highest FIFA world ranking finishing top of respective groups and winning knock-out games

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