fHalftime frown. Old friends raised their eyebrows knowingly and exhaled. The hall of Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium was the kind of place to meet school friends you hadn’t seen in years, but everyone skipped pleasantries to get straight to the point: “Why didn’t Kieffer play? Don’t we miss Joe Allen in midfield? Oh you left DVLA to start your own business and you just had twins? Nice.”
Wales were 1-0 down and terrible, an unusually poor performance after a strange day. Maybe world championships are always like that. I had nothing to do.
As we walked through Doha, Mexicans, Argentines and Ecuadorians recognized our replica shirts and shouted, “Wales! Storm! Wales!” On the subway we were applauded by some Brazilians who asked to be photographed with us. Amazingly, they knew about John Charles and how our two countries played in the quarter-finals of the 1958 World Cup. If these fans for Fifa corporate shills were paid, they had at least read the background reading.
As we walked through the Souq Waqif market, we saw local teenagers in Chelsea and Real Madrid shirts, proof if you needed it that even small gas- and oil-rich states in the Middle East are not immune to the global reach of the soccer are. The sheer volume of people mentioning Gareth Bale brought him closer to the level of his fame. It’s a box-office hit in a way that shrinks Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Zeta-Jones, or Richard Burton by comparison. Not bad for the son of a Cardiff school janitor.
Wales fans were filmed singing by locals Calon Lan and I listened to my friend Trystan converse with an Ecuadorian woman in the international language of football, and marveled as he spoke to her about Allen’s hamstrings in a Llangefni accent so strong it blew the earth out its axis could tear. As we walked down through a mall the size of Gloucester to the ground, US fans unsarcastically wished us luck and hoped we would have a good tournament.
Maybe I’m too schooled about British club football, but it felt like a glimpse into a parallel universe – a conspicuous, almost disconcerting, lack of wanker marks as we walked past another Sunglass Hut and Louis Vuitton to the ground.
Finally, the excited photographing of every Welsh flag I saw became untenable as we passed restaurants and hotels that rose out of the desert but were decked out like a Llanelli primary school on St David’s Day. After a pilgrimage to the giant Welsh bucket hat in one of the fan zones, I snapped a photo of the sign which, for the curious and uninitiated, describes Wales: “Wales is a nation of kind deeds, global deals, open arms and brilliant ideas.” …” (if you want to know more about our fans, our culture and our epic country, scan this QR code).
When Arsenal and Wales centre-back Mel Charles returned home from our last World Cup, the conductor at Swansea station spotted his suitcase and asked if he had been on holiday. “We had just played in the World Cup quarterfinals,” Charles said in disbelief. “Maybe he hadn’t read the newspapers.” A lot has changed since 1958.
Along with 1,600 others, I attended a party at a hotel and drank Budweiser on the 55th floor at knee-knee prices. Joe Ledley was bullied, Welsh football cultural attaché Dafydd Iwan played Yma o Hyd to delirious scenes. I met an old school friend of Gareth ‘GO’ Jones, the school teacher who took me and hundreds like me to my first international in Wales as a child, an act that shaped my personality as profoundly as learning to read.
GO devoted itself totally selflessly to grassroots and youth football in West Wales, a life of thankless endeavors born of a totally pure, unspoilt love of football. “Dykhmyga, Elis. Cymru yng Nghwpan y Byd. Bydde Gareth wrth ei fodd.” (“Imagine Elis. Wales at a World Cup. Gareth would have loved it.”)
I spoke to Rainbow Wall members who had brought rainbow bucket hats to put on empty seats to represent their LGBTQ+ friends who didn’t feel like they could be there. Qatar could be brilliant. It was never far from dark.
I’m sure if we had qualified more often, our first game at a World Cup would have been less emotionally charged, an opening game of the group stage would have felt as routine as brushing your teeth or apologizing to the boat fund for not doing it a benefit card. If you go by our form since the World Cup started in 1930, that’s going to happen next time I’m 106. No wonder I had a selfie with the Rwandan security guard who was an Arsenal fan and loved Aaron Ramsey. I wanted to soak it all up. We all did.
The anthem crackled on the floor, but the crew was floored. Luckily we went into the break nervous and flat-footed with a deficit of 0:1. Kieffer Moore came on, the team improved immediately and they began playing with the tenacity the occasion called for. Bale won the penalty, Bale took the penalty, our end went with a bang. He came, he saw, he balanced.
Full-time, Neco Williams cried for his grandfather, who had died the day before. It reminded me of Ramsey sobbing on the Cardiff City Stadium lawn after our qualifying session as his thoughts turned to Gary Speed, the adrenaline rush that Welsh football so desperately needed in 2010 and for whom qualifying for a World Cup is always the ultimate was ambition.
I was told that Welsh fans had their rainbow bucket hats confiscated en route to the ground and wondered how many more promises would be broken before the tournament ended. Welcome to the World Cup.
Elis James has donated his fee for this column to Amnesty International, which is working to help Qatar and FIFA set up a compensation fund for migrant workers