World Cup 2022: Wales savour their moment in time after 64 years away

Wales players train in Qatar
Gareth Bale (right) and his Wales team-mates prepare for Monday’s World Cup opener against the United States
Host nation: Qatar Dates: 20 November-18 December Coverage: Live on BBC TV, BBC iPlayer, BBC Radio 5 Live, BBC Radio Wales, BBC Radio Cymru, BBC Sounds and the BBC Sport website and app. Day-by-day TV listingsFull coverage details

Wales are at the World Cup. It bears repeating. Drink it in.

Unless you’re old enough to remember 1958, or young enough not to recall a time before 2016, the idea of Wales playing at a World Cup has felt like a fantasy for most of your life.

To be a Welsh football fan is to hope. But for even the most optimistic among them, the sport’s greatest competition – and Wales’ continued absence from it – has brought with it hefty, often crushing doses of reality.

There have been the near misses, from Scotland in 1977 to Romania 1993 and the Republic of Ireland in 2017. They are etched in the collective memory, indelible marks punctuated by draining periods of miserable failure and, worse, apathy.

To be a Welsh fan is to have become conditioned to watch World Cups as a neutral, accepting as fact that Wales are not among the competitors, choosing instead to pick another country at random to support every four years.

For 64 years, to be a Welsh fan has been to stand outside in the cold, peering enviously through the window into the warmth as others enjoy this quadrennial carnival.

Qualifying for Euro 2016 was cathartic, the glorious ending of a 58-year wait for a major tournament. That golden summer in France stirred the soul of a nation, the joy sweeter because of the pain which had come before.

It was why there were tears in the rain in Zenica when qualification was finally sealed, why the anthem in the Bordeaux sunshine filled Welsh hearts, and why the seismic quarter-final win over Belgium lifted Wales to a higher plane.

Still the World Cup proved elusive, though.

Then the day came in June when the anguish of Wales’ World Cup history washed away in the pouring rain.

As Dafydd Iwan joined the players on the pitch to sing Yma o Hyd – backed by a choir of 33,000 in Cardiff – this was a moment of arrival, return and profound endurance all at once. Despite everyone and everything, Wales were still here.

Now Wales are here at a World Cup.

History inspires this group of players but it does not wear them down. They embrace the magnitude of what they represent, they are well versed in 1958 and all that, but they are not shackled by the failures of their predecessors.

As for the supporters, the past adds weight and depth to their experience, but it does not define them. Enduring what came before accentuates all that they feel now, but it is the present – and the hope it carries for the future – that is most important.

This a country which now looks to its football team as one of its most visible and vibrant expressions of identity and national self-confidence.

On and off the field, there are people who do Wales proud, from Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and their team-mates to the fans who have helped establish a distinct image of Welshness across the world.

It’s about more than football, it’s a community, a tribe, a vibe. As the manager Robert Page says: “It’s Yma o Hyd, it’s the anthem, it’s the bucket hats, it’s the jerseys, it’s the music.”

There is no escaping the fact that this World Cup is different. Where many are concerned, the tournament should not be in Qatar.

There are myriad reasons why this country is a controversial host for a World Cup, from its human rights record to its stance on the LGBTQ+ community and its treatment of migrant workers.

And there are few, if any, reasons for this country, almost entirely devoid of any football heritage, to host a World Cup. For those visiting Doha, to report or support, it is natural to feel conflicted.

But to see Wales at a World Cup? That is something to savour. As complex and controversial as the backdrop to this competition undoubtedly is, it is still a moment in time for Wales.

Whether you are in Qatar, at home in Wales or elsewhere in the world, when Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau plays before the opening game against the United States on Monday, for just a few minutes, nothing else will matter.

Wales have waited a long time for this, and it might be a long time before we see its like again.

It’s worth saying again, try and let it sink in: Wales at a World Cup. Don’t fight it, feel it.

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