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Not since 1958 have Wales played at a World Cup. As comedian and Welsh football fanatic Elis James will tell you, that was so long ago it was before the invention of the duvet… But 64 years on, a new generation finally have the chance to replicate the exploits of John Charles, Ivor Allchurch, Cliff Jones and co.
At Sweden ’58, Wales advanced past the group stage by beating Hungary 2-1 in a play-off, having finished level on points with the Magyars, before going down 1-0 to eventual winners Brazil in the quarter-finals as a 17-year-old Pele burst on to the world stage. In Qatar, there is no reason why the 2022 version of the Welsh side can’t match their predecessors and reach the knockouts as they try to navigate a group containing Iran, USA and fierce rivals England.
This is team used to making history, after all. A 58-year major tournament drought was ended with aplomb as they not only qualified for Euro 2016 but stunned the world to reach the semi-finals before making a second European Championship four years later and finally ending that World Cup qualification hoodoo with a 2-1 victory over Austria and a 1-0 win over Ukraine in the play-offs – Gareth Bale scoring all three of their goals.
As the one, true world-class player in Rob Page’s side, captain and all-time top scorer Bale is still the talismanic fulcrum around which this team revolves but while other elements of the Euro 2016 crop remain – including the likes of Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen, Ben Davies and Jonny Williams – there is also a new generation ready to shine in Qatar. Ethan Ampadu, Neco Williams, Dan James and Brennan Johnson provide an exciting younger core and if Page can get the combination of youth and experience singing, more history could yet be in the offing.
Here is everything you need to know:
Group fixtures (all times GMT)
Monday 21 November: USA vs Wales – 19:00
Friday 25 November: Wales vs Iran – 10:00
Tuesday 29 November: Wales vs England – 19:00
Goalkeepers: Wayne Hennessey (Nottingham Forest), Danny Ward (Leicester City), Adam Davies (Sheffield United).
Defenders: Ben Davies (Tottenham Hotspur), Ben Cabango (Swansea City), Tom Lockyer (Luton Town), Joe Rodon (Rennes, on loan from Tottenham Hotspur), Chris Mephan (Bournemouth), Ethan Ampadu (Spezia, on loan from Chelsea), Chris Gunter (Wimbledon), Neco Williams (Nottingham Forest), Connor Roberts (Burnley).
Midfielders: Sorba Thomas (Huddersfield Town), Joe Allen (Swansea City), Matthew Smith (Milton Keynes Dons), Dylan Levitt (Dundee United), Harry Wilson (Fulham), Joe Morrell (Portsmouth), Jonny Williams (Swindon Town), Aaron Ramsey (Nice), Rubin Colwill (Cardiff City).
Forwards: Gareth Bale (Los Angeles FC), Kieffer Moore (Bournemouth), Mark Harris (Cardiff City), Brennan Johnson (Nottingham Forest), Dan James (Fulham, on loan from Leeds United).
Ones to watch
Star – Gareth Bale: With respect to Ivor Allchurch, John Charles, Ian Rush, Ryan Giggs et al, Bale is quite simply Wales’s greatest-ever player. He’s their talisman who, even when his club career was falling apart at Real Madrid, still delivered on the international stage and is beloved by everyone associated with Welsh football. He has always shone brightest in the big moments, proven yet again when he scored twice against Austria and once against Ukraine to book Wales’ spot in Qatar, and there is no bigger moment than this.
Breakout talent – Neco Williams: Either Williams or Nottingham Forest teammate Brennan Johnson could have filled this spot but the marauding full-back edges it as his dazzling overlaps, pinpoint crossing and relentless energy look set to light up Qatar. The 21-year-old has shone in the early part of the Premier League season since joining newly-promoted Forest from Liverpool. Often plays on the left, rather than his preferred right-hand side, for Wales due to the presence of Connor Roberts but is equally as impressive and creative on that flank.
Wales may not have been very good at qualifying for major tournaments throughout their history but they are remarkably adept at getting out of the group once there. In fact, they boast a 100 per cent record – three tournaments reached, three appearances in the knockout stages – and Group B offers them a good chance of maintaining that streak, with USA and Iran in particular feeling very beatable. They have the quality to do so and although Netherlands – a team they have lost to all 10 times they’ve faced them – will likely be waiting in the last 16, advancing beyond the group will surely be seen as a successful tournament. Defeated in the last 16.