This article is part of the Guardian’s World Cup 2022 Experts’ Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organisations from the 32 countries who qualified. theguardian.com is running previews from two countries each day in the run-up to the tournament kicking off on 20 November.
Twenty-six monoliths were installed across historic sites across Wales, from Cardiff Castle to Caerleon Roman Baths, to represent each player in the squad at last year’s European Championship and depending on how things go at a first World Cup since 1958 the conversation could soon turn to statues. For Gareth Bale, a five-time Champions League winner, wearing the dragon on his chest and the captain’s armband around his bicep at a World Cup marks the final box to tick on his footballing bucket list.
After navigating nerve-shredding playoffs against Austria and Ukraine earlier this year, Wales could be forgiven for wanting to enjoy the experience. They have qualified for three of the past four major tournaments, single-handedly sparking the renaissance of the bucket hat now synonymous with the team in the process, and while expectations have undoubtedly increased they head to Qatar unfazed and unburdened. They gave Belgium and Netherlands a fright in recent Nations League encounters with their fearless approach and will quietly fancy their chances of getting out of Group B, which concludes with the small matter of a mouthwatering tie against neighbours England.
Wales are set to line up with a three-man defence, allowing rampant wing-backs Connor Roberts and Neco Williams to flood forward and Bale to operate from his favoured right flank. Bale insists he will arrive from stateside in peak fitness despite only playing more than 60 minutes twice since joining Los Angeles FC in the summer. Another major concern is the fitness of Joe Allen, who has been absent since September with a hamstring problem.
The vibrancy of this Wales squad, much of which stems from the Nottingham Forest pair Williams and Brennan Johnson, is a cause for optimism but their strength is in the collective, hence Rob Page’s willingness to select players from the fourth tier such as Chris Gunter and Jonny Williams, both of whom were influential during the incredible run to the Euro 2016 semi-finals.
Regardless of what happens this winter, Page has said his valuable core of 30-somethings – from Bale to Aaron Ramsey and Wayne Hennessey – have promised him they won’t all step away from their country in one swoop. “We want Gareth to stay involved as long as he can,” Page said. “You can’t go from them having a big influence to a big chunk of them leaving.”
Another World Cup – OK, a first in 64 years – and another coach that hails from the Rhondda valley. Rob Page is immensely proud of his roots in Tylorstown, a former mining village less than four miles from Pentre, the birthplace of Jimmy Murphy, who led Wales to the quarter-finals in 1958. “We were out playing kick-a-can, making games up on the street and then your mother would call you in at nine o’clock for your supper,” the former Watford captain recalled of his childhood. A former Port Vale and Northampton manager, Page worked with players such as Joe Rodon and Daniel James during his two years in charge of the under-21s before being promoted to Ryan Giggs’s assistant in 2019. Led Wales at Euro 2020 following Giggs’s arrest and signed a four-year contract after Giggs’s resignation in June. Hugely respected by players and staff, Page has proved an inspirational leader.
Who else? As the Red Wall sings, Viva Gareth Bale. The country’s all-time record goalscorer and captain is the darling of Welsh football and while they are not the one-man team often painted, Bale’s influence runs deep. He was seemingly keeping his powder dry for a vintage display in victory over Austria in March, a majestic free-kick paving the way to victory, before making the difference against Ukraine in June. The big question is: could this be the last time Bale pulls on a Wales shirt? Qatar is considered the forward’s footballing swansong, even if he has said he could play on until Euro 2024. “I still have many years to come,” the 33-year-old said after joining Los Angeles FC in July. His tendency to rise to the occasion was typified by him scoring a stoppage-time equaliser deep into extra time before LAFC beat Philadelphia Union on penalties to win the MLS Cup on 5 November. “It’s always nice to score in finals, I seem to have a knack for doing that,” Bale said. Was immortalised in a Cardiff mural after Wales qualified for Euro 2016.
Ben Davies’s goal-line clearance to deny Marek Hamsik three minutes into Wales’s opening game at Euro 2016 set the tone for a memorable ride to the last four of that competition but the Tottenham Hotspur defender seems to keep outdoing himself. Unafraid to put his head on the line for club or country, he delivered another heroic performance in Wales’s crucial playoff final victory over Ukraine, making a box set of crucial blocks and interventions.
Bale will be one of eight captains to wear a rainbow-coloured “OneLove” armband as part of an anti-discrimination initiative, though he may have to source a new one after the Football Association of Wales admitted to losing the armband in Belgium in September after Bale appeared without it against Poland four days later. Noel Mooney, the FAW’s chief executive, has said they would happily take a fine on the chin for showing their support to the LGBTQ+ community if Fifa does not approve of the messaging. “We will live our values over there,” Mooney said. Page held a meeting with his players on the eve of their last camp to address the importance of respecting the culture. “We don’t want to unintentionally upset anyone,” he said.
Hearing Wales belt out Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau is one of the game’s great sights and sounds. Players are versed on its meaning from a young age; in 2011 Gary Speed gave his squad both the Welsh and phonetic versions in pursuit of perfection. Written and composed by father and son Evan and James James in 1856, a statue in Ynysangharad Park in Pontypridd honours the pair. In 1977 the English FA refused to play the anthem at Wembley, leading the then Wales captain, Terry Yorath, and his teammates to link arms and sing it themselves as England’s players readied for kick-off. Wales won the game 1-0.
All-time cult hero
It is difficult to look past Hal Robson-Kanu, the Acton-born former England youth forward who went to Euro 2016 a free agent and returned with a place in Welsh legend. His pièce de résistance will for ever be that giddying Cruyff turn and finish that stunned Belgium’s Thomas Meunier and Marouane Fellaini in Lille to send Wales to the semi-finals. Described by Ryan Giggs as “an icon in Welsh football”, these days Robson-Kanu, who at 33 is yet to officially retire, runs a nutrition company that sells shots of turmeric, a root from the ginger family, which he used after recovering from knee surgery as a teenager. Fans still sing his name to the tune of Salt-N-Pepa’s Push It.
Ben Fishes writes for the Guardian. Follow him here on Twitter.