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Gareth Bale and the rest of the Wales squad celebrate qualifying for a first World Cup in 64 years
Wales’ qualification for the World Cup in Qatar has sparked increased interest in a tournament that has so far been quite difficult to enthuse.
The showpiece of international football is normally the highlight of the sporting calendar when played every four years, but for a variety of well-documented reasons the upcoming first-ever winter edition has yet to captivate the public. public imagination.
Focusing first on Wales’ success, after beating Ukraine on an emotional night in Cardiff, they celebrated as you would expect for a nation whose only previous Cup appearance world dates back to 1958.
It marks another milestone for a team that has shown great solidarity, building on their recent achievements in the semi-finals of Euro 2016 – their first major tournament in 58 years – before going on to secure a place at Euro 2020. After a few hiccups over the years, now they’re finally able to mix it up again on the world stage.
It was no surprise that it was Gareth Bale who made the difference in the win over Ukraine as his deflected free-kick secured a slim 1-0 victory, but boss Robert Page also had Wayne Hennessey at to thank for an outstanding goalkeeping display as Ben Davies put his body on the line at the back. Experienced duo Joe Allen and Aaron Ramsey in midfield were also crucial, while rising stars like Neco Williams and Ethan Ampadu more than played their part.
Wales can now gear up for a campaign in Group B at the end of the year against the United States, Iran and, more intriguingly, England, Page saying optimistically after playoff success that his team is capable of “taking on anyone”. Certainly, if they bring the same spirit and attitude that they showed in France six years ago, they have a chance to upset the odds.
It’s normally at this point in a World Cup year that football fans congregate, gathering in crowded pub brasseries on long summer evenings to watch the best players on the planet, many a between them putting aside club loyalty, compete on the biggest stadium of them all.
However, with the weather far too hot for football in the Arabian Peninsula in June and July, Qatar 2022 will be the first winter World Cup. It will take place over a four-week period between November 21 and December 18, when domestic leagues are halted, with the final being played just a week before Christmas.
I remember waking up early to watch 2002 World Cup matches in Japan and South Korea and thinking it was a strange feeling, but having the final rounds of football’s biggest tournament going on during the busy Christmas period, when it gets dark at 5 p.m., will be something else.
It has been well documented what a controversial decision it was to award the 22nd World Cup to Qatar. I was amazed in 2010 when the hosts for the 2022 tournament were revealed to be Qatar, beating Australia, USA, Japan and South Korea in the bidding process. Initially, organizers insisted it would be held in the summer as usual with talks about using state-of-the-art air-conditioned stadiums to cool players and fans down.
However, this plan was quickly abandoned. Traditionalists are unlikely to ever come to the tournament held there and the fact that it is scheduled for the winter, in the middle of the clubs’ busy season, only makes it even more difficult to fall behind. The World Cup should be the focus of the summer for football fans, not something shod at the end of the year with little crucial preparation time given to players and managers.
Qatar is by far the smallest country to ever host the World Cup – they are about the same size as Yorkshire – and are only the second country (not counting Uruguay, hosts of the inaugural tournament in 1930) to organize a World Cup despite never having qualified for a previous edition.
Their men’s side have improved in recent years and now sit a respectable 51st in the Fifa rankings, but they are still a team that are 14-1 underdogs to win Group A, behind the Netherlands, the Senegal and Ecuador, and their status as international minnows is reflected. by the fact that they are huge 250-1 underdogs in the outright market.
There are plenty of people understandably unhappy with the biggest footballing competition taking place in Qatar, but concerns about the hosts’ ability to stage such a big tournament would not have been prominent in the thoughts of the country’s players. of Wales celebrating at the final whistle in Cardiff. Indeed, Bale summed up their mood perfectly, saying qualifying ‘means everything’ and it’s ‘the last piece of the puzzle we all want’.
Wales reached the quarter-finals in 1958 when a certain Pelé was responsible for knocking out Jimmy Murphy’s side in Sweden in a valiant 1-0 defeat. A similar run to the last eight later this year would surely be seen as a great achievement for Bale and co, whose welcome qualification finally shed a positive light on a tournament that has been beset with controversy thus far.
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FIRST PUBLICATION AT 5:00 PM, JUNE 8, 2022