Imagine being a Wales fan and not going to the World Cup. It is the first time they have qualified since 1958, which was so long ago that the goal that knocked them out was scored by an unknown teenager called Pelé. Sixty-four years later and it is Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Rob Page looking to set the world on fire. What a time to be alive! Except, for some Wales fans, they are going to pass, thanks very much.
Some of the same supporters who found themselves in tears of ecstasy in Zenica, on their way to Euro 2016 despite defeat by Bosnia-Herzegovina, or who phoned home to delay their return one more time as Chris Coleman’s team became the sensation of the finals in France, are choosing to sit this one out. If anyone has reckoned with the complicated issues surrounding this much-maligned tournament, it is them.
Kevin Davies is a veteran of nearly 70 away trips with the Welsh national team. He has seen them lose in Montenegro and Macedonia and get thumped 5-0 by Georgia. He was also in the stadium in Bordeaux six years ago when it suddenly transpired that 25,000 had made it to the Slovakia game and were belting out the anthem in unison.
“If I was English there would have been no doubt in my mind, I wouldn’t have gone,” he says. “But for a Welsh supporter, to decide not to go to a World Cup is a huge decision. It may never happen again in my lifetime.”
For Davies, his argument for staying at home begins with an ethical consideration, one that dates back to 2010. “When Qatar were awarded the competition,” he says, “my immediate reaction was: ‘I don’t want any part of that. It’s not a footballing decision, it’s a money decision.’”
He was aware then of the disparity in human rights between the Gulf state and his own nation. But that in itself would not have stopped him travelling to the country. “I’ve been to China, I’ve been to Israel, I’ve been to America, places where human rights and regimes are not popular,” he says. “But I looked at it in a different way: I was going there to support Wales against that country. Going to Qatar is different. It’s endorsing the World Cup, it’s endorsing Fifa.”
Another Kevin, Kevin Ashton, isn’t going either. He lives in Caerphilly and banged up and down France in a camper van for a month in what he calls the time of his life. He describes the decision to award the tournament to Qatar as “unfortunate” and says the country’s treatment of migrant workers and minorities put him off before Wales even qualified. He also says the apparent assurances that certain laws – such as those regarding displays of public affection – might be relaxed during the tournament almost make things worse. “Basically they’re saying they do have laws that aren’t consistent with most other countries and we’ll go back to it once everyone’s gone,” he says.
But the feeling that this tournament wasn’t for either supporter extended beyond a political or moral consideration. Indeed for both the thing that seems to nag them most is a fear that it … just might not be any fun.
“Now we’ve qualified my major reason for not going is the logistics,” says Davies. “How are you going to get there, how much is it going to cost to stay in places, will it be easy to do it?”
He describes how most of his friends are avoiding the limitations of booking accommodation through the official World Cup portal by staying in Dubai instead. But that entails a shuttle flight before dawn on the day of a game. “I know a lot of people who are going, I’ve got no problem with that, but they’re jumping through so many hoops.”
Ashton says his entire stay in France cost less than half what he anticipated 10 days and three group games in Qatar might cost him, noting that by qualifying through the playoffs (with victory over Ukraine) whatever cheaper flights or accommodation might have been available was missed by Wales fans.
“If you’re going to go some place and spend 5K, 6K, 7K,” he says, “when you’re coming back you want people to be like: ’Don’t bring it up, he goes on and on about it all the time!’ I don’t want people asking me how it was only to say: ‘It was all right.’”
Both men mention their concern over recording a positive Covid test and the knock-on effect that might have on their experience. Last week Qatar dropped the requirement for a negative result upon entry, but perhaps too late for it not to have featured in travelling fans’ thinking.
Either way, it appears “hassle” has played largely on both men’s minds. That’s not to say that there isn’t the odd pang of uncertainty about their decision. “Perhaps I might feel a bit differently if we achieve what we achieved in France,” Davies says. “I don’t want us to lose games, I want us to win the World Cup! But if that happens it’s going to be pretty bittersweet.”
The consolation for Davies, who ties his away travel to fundraising work for the football charity Gôl, is that there is always another tournament round the corner. “I’m really looking forward to the next Euros in Germany,” he says.
“That will be bliss for a football fan. In my opinion, Germany is the best country to watch football. Everything from the grounds, to the culture, to the transportation. I really hope we qualify, I’ll be all over that.”