Bale’s World Cup ambition is more than Wales going far

DOHA, Qatar — For most national team captains coming to the World Cup, the dream is to be the one to lift the trophy on December 18 at Lusail Stadium. But it’s a little different for Wales captain Gareth Bale. He’s in Qatar to win games, that’s obvious, but there’s also bigger things at stake. He hopes that at the 2042 World Cup another player will lead a Welsh team on football’s biggest stage with a memory of 2022 in his mind.

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This is Wales’ first World Cup in Bale’s life and he opens up about his childhood memories of the competition, which was spoiled by his country not being there. But he is hopeful, having guided Wales to their first qualification since 1958, that there are young players at home who will follow the games against the United States, Iran – who they play on Friday – and England and be inspired to follow in his footsteps.

“As a child I dreamed of seeing Wales at a World Cup but to actually be in the team that made it is an amazing feeling and an honor to be able to do that for the country,” said Bale. “For the youngsters who are growing up now, having Wales at the World Cup is an incredible experience, even if they don’t realize it now. I wish I had done it.

“Hopefully if we do what we have done we will have a strong national team going forward and 20 years from now they are sitting where I say now Wales qualifying for the 2022 World Cup was the inspiration for them to play football and love it.”

A five-time Champions League winner at Real Madrid, Bale has done as much as anyone to make football relevant again in his country. Wales’ last great player, Ryan Giggs, was regularly criticized for putting his club Manchester United ahead of his country and although he made his international debut as a teenager in 1991, he did not play a friendly until 2000. Non-competitive games became strong from that of the time United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, who wanted to keep his star players as fit as possible but sometimes felt that Welsh football played no part, especially as many in Wales were already considering rugby union as a national sport.

Giggs made 963 appearances for United over a 23-year career but only made 64 appearances for Wales. On the other hand, when Bale faces Iran at the Al-Rayyan Stadium, he will be capping his 110th cap. He’s hoping to add a few more in Qatar by making it out of the group, like Wales did at Euro 2016 – their first major tournament in 58 years – and Euro 2020, which was staged in 2021 due to the COVID -19 pandemic.

Reaching the semi-finals of the European Championship six years ago might be difficult, but a respectable 1-1 draw against the USA in the first game opened up the possibility of progressing from Group B and reaching a round of 16 tie against the Netherlands.

There is also more at stake. Wales has been particularly hard hit by the UK’s cost of living crisis. Research from the Abrdn Financial Fairness Trust and the University of Bristol found that 22% of households have been forced to cut costs significantly to cope with soaring food prices and energy bills.

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Wales manager Rob Page used his press conference ahead of the opening game against USA to say he hopes his team can bring some relief to people struggling at home. He also paid special tribute to the fans who spent thousands of pounds traveling to Qatar to support the players.

“I have nothing but praise for the Rote Wand and our fans, they played a big part in us qualifying for the World Cup,” said Page. “The commitment they continue to show by supporting us is incredible. We haven’t qualified for too many big tournaments and I think they just want to be a part of it.

“Even the last one at the Euros they couldn’t travel because of COVID, so I think that made more people want to come to Qatar. I have nothing but praise and respect because it’s a big, big commitment.”

World Cup fever has not only gripped Doha but also across Wales, from Cardiff and Swansea on the south coast to Wrexham in the north.

“We get videos and photos sent to our WhatsApp group from home and friends send things over,” Bale said. “You can see the flags are up, bucket hats and shirts are out, so we’re feeling the excitement at home.

“Growing up it was always a bit disappointing to watch World Cups because Wales weren’t there.

“It’s incredible that we’re the team to cross the finish line. It’s important to grow football in our country and inspire another generation to get more kids playing football.”

Bale’s first World Cup memory is from France 1998, not because of any specific game or goal, but because he had a pencil case with the tournament logo on it. For generations of fans that’s as close as it gets, but Bale and Page have made sure there’s a real connection now by sharing a stage with the likes of England, Argentina and Brazil.

Wales, a country of just over three million people – similar to Iowa – and whose top national teams play in the English league system, is aiming for a place in Qatar in the knockout stages and a place among the top 16 teams worldwide . Of far greater importance, however, is what they have already achieved off the pitch.

https://www.espn.com/soccer/fifa-world-cup/story/4812411/bales-world-cup-ambition-is-more-than-wales-going-far Bale’s World Cup ambition is more than Wales going far

Emma Bowman

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