Joe Allen made a welcome return to full Wales training on Wednesday as he continues his rehabilitation from a hamstring injury, joining the squad as they reverted to full tilt after enjoying a recovery day. Blowup unicorns have grown synonymous with Gareth Southgate’s England side and this week Wales introduced an alternative, and rather apt, species poolside: inflatable dragons.
“The lads enjoyed it,” says the midfielder Harry Wilson. “We got our recovery out of the way, which is obviously important and then it was nice to have that fun time where we were able to get in the pool. It is important to mix the work with a bit of pleasure.”
The sight of Brennan Johnson and Dylan Levitt riding a giant red dragon during a 20-minute splash around in the pool offers a snapshot into the importance of downtime at a tournament where the spotlight is so fierce. Three Group B matches in eight days, with Iran next on Friday and then England on Tuesday. The games on offer at the team hotel in West Bay include darts, pool, table tennis and golf, via a simulator requested by – who else – Gareth Bale and his best friend, Wayne Hennessey. Bale, whose golf handicap is thought to be close to scratch, has spoken about the mental respite being out on the fairways brings – “peace and quiet, with no cameras” – but for now he has to settle for the next best thing.
“When he has a swing, Gaz is obviously very good,” Wilson says. “He hasn’t played as much closer to the games because his back might be feeling it a bit. We’ve got a few good golfers; Locks [Tom Lockyer] has been good. Matty Smith has been top dog. Ethan Ampadu fancies himself as a good table tennis player – him and Sorba Thomas are always playing. Because they play a lot, those two are up there.”
The other notable addition to the Wales camp is the display of rainbow-coloured flags at their Al Sadd Sports Club training base, a venue they are sharing with Japan, a reminder of their stance after the OneLove armband furore. A large rainbow flag is draped from a pitch-side tent at their training ground, while corner flags were changed in support of the LGBTQ+ community. Some Football Association of Wales staff and Wales fans had multicoloured hats confiscated before Monday’s draw against the USA, with the inquest into such events ongoing.
The mood is relaxed before Wales return to the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium, where Bale’s penalty salvaged a draw in their opener. Failure to take anything from that game would have cast a grim outlook on their remaining time in Qatar but if they can beat Iran on Friday they will fancy their chances of progressing to the last 16.
“In tournament football, to not lose your first game is huge,” Wilson says. “This [Iran] game is maybe the game that people think is the most winnable for us but it’s still going to be tough and we need to be on our A-game. If we can get a positive result from that, that will set us up nicely going into the last game.”
In between afternoon training and evening video analysis sessions, players gather on beanbags at the team hotel to watch the rest of the group stages unfold on a projector screen. Some play cards, others Call of Duty: Warzone. On Tuesday the squad was permitted to spend a couple of hours with their families. Wilson’s grandfather, Peter, won £125,000 after a £50 bet in 2000 that Wilson, then a toddler, would play for his country came true 13 years later. “I’ve got my immediate family over here, [plus] a couple of uncles and friends from my local town,” he says. “With it being the first World Cup for 64 years, they were desperate to get over here.”
Kieffer Moore, a decade on from combining playing part-time for Truro City with working as a personal trainer and lifeguard, is set to lead the line against Iran after impressing off the bench on Monday. “When I was working at the same time I was playing, it was a lot of hard work and a lot of sacrifices I had to put in,” Moore says. “But ultimately that’s led me to have this work ethos which I’ve carried the whole way with me and I still have now. [It gave me] life experience. Being out in the real world. When you’re in the [youth] academy, I suppose you are a bit sheltered.”