Today we begin, in reverse alphabetical order, to provide the profiles of the 32 teams which qualified for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. First up is Wales.
The Dragons are participating in their second World Cup ever, the last time being 64 years ago, in WC 1958, in Sweden—the longest participation gap of any nation in World Cup history. Wales is riding a six-year streak of surpassing expectations (despite not qualifying for the 2018 World Cup) that began with their qualification for and semifinals appearance in Euro 2016, followed by qualification for Euro 2020 and good showings in that tourney and in the following Nations League. The streak, not coincidentally, parallels the years that could be called the pinnacle of the team’s talisman, captain, top scorer, and world-class striker Gareth Bale’s prowess if not his career.
Placed in Group B with England, USA, and Iran, the Welsh believe they are well-placed to advance at the expense of one of the latter two. The team, which is ranked 18 in the world by FIFA, is managed by Rob Page. The coach had an 18-year career as a professional player (defender) in the UK, nine years as a lower division club coach and Wales U-21 coach, and now two at the national helm as Ryan Giggs stepped down. The team’s home kit is all-red, and their away colors are yellow tops and socks with green shorts.
Wales has been continually inhabited for more than 10,000 years. As part of the United Kingdom, it is governed by a devolved parliamentary legislature within the parliamentary constitutional monarchy of the UK. The country is largely mountainous, yet 77% of the land is used for agriculture. Wales has a total area of 8,023 square miles, a population of 3,267,501, and mild weather (winter lows in the 30sF and summer highs in the 60sF) that is often cloudy, wet, and windy. The country’s Human Development Index score is 0.901 (very high), and its GDP is $90.3B, yet 23% of the population lives below the poverty line. The Welsh speak English and Welsh, are 95.6% White, 46% Christian, have a long and rich mythology, and culinary, literary, and musical traditions. The Welsh football fans are nicknamed the Red Wall.
Squad (which may change before the cup given injuries, and coaching choices—teams mentioned are subject to change given transfers): Goalkeepers—Wayne Hennessey (Burnley), Danny Ward (Leicester City), Adam Davies (Sheffield United); Defenders—Ben Davies (Tottenham), Joe Rodon (Tottenham), Chris Mepham (Bournemouth), Chris Gunter (Unattached), Rhys Norrington-Davies (Sheffield United), Connor Roberts (Burnley), Neco Williams (Liverpool); Midfielders—Joe Allen (Stoke City), Joe Morrell (Portsmouth), Ethan Amapdu (Chelsea), Matthew Smith (MK Dons), Aaron Ramsey (Nice), Dylan Levitt (Manchester United), Rabbi Matondo, (Schalke 04), Sorba Thomas (Huddersfield), Rubin Colwill (Cardiff City), Harry Wilson (Fulham), Jonny Williams (Swindon Town); Strikers—Gareth Bale (Los Angeles, FC), Daniel James (Leeds United), Mark Harris (Cardiff City), Nathan Broadhead (Everton), Kieffer Moore (Bournemouth), Brennan Johnson (Nottingham Forest).
Path to Qatar
Wales was in UEFA Group E with Belgium, Czech Republic, Estonia, and Belarus, and came in second with four wins, three draws, and a single loss to group winners Belgium. The critical win came away on September 5, 2021, to Belarus, who had ended the first half ahead 2-1 only to have Bale’s hat trick include a 69th-minute penalty conversion for the draw and a 90th+3 goal for the win in a Covid-19- affected empty stadium.
Selected and seeded for the Second Round, Wales were placed in Path A with Scotland, Ukraine, and Austria. They came out victorious in the playoffs with a 2-1 win over Austria (Bale scoring both) and a 1-0 win over Ukraine. In the latter match, Bale’s free-kick goal was credited to him, yet the shot was actually and drastically redirected for an own goal by Ukraine’s captain and star midfielder Andriy Yarmolenko.
Wales has employed a number of systems over the past couple of years, but coach Page seems to have settled upon a recent favorite—a 3-4-2-1—with Hennessey in goal, and left to right on the pitch, in defense B. Davies, Rondon, and Ampadu, in midfield N. Williams, Ramsey, Allen, and C. Roberts, and on offense Johnson (James?) and Bale, with Moore up top. The system relies on attacking wide play and the pace of the strikers and the midfielders covering for the continual attacking forays of the wingbacks.
The team over-relies on Bale to come through in the clutch, and he has. But the emergence of James, the support of Johnson, and the settling in of Moore seem to have made up for the up and down performances of Aaron Ramsey, who is still a key cog in the Welsh machinery. The whole clockworks, though, depend upon an intricate interplay that relies on the midfielders playing mostly defense in matches against superior teams—leaving mostly Bale alone up front for counters—and then playing offense against equally skilled or inferior opposition, tempered with wing cover when the entire team turns particularly aggressive on offense, a Page proclivity.
Group and Tourney Prospects
The Welsh fancy their chances in Group B, and with a reinvigorated Bale, keeping in form, but mostly at ease, at Los Angeles FC, they have them. But England are riding high after a finals appearance in Euro 2020 (2021), Iran are no pushover, as Portugal found out in World Cup 2018, and the USA is fielding its best team in several generations. So, it will come down to who flinches first.
If England stumble, all bets are off. If the USA or Iran are not on their A-game the Welsh can beat them, but if those opponents are playing to their proper levels Bale will not be enough to overcome his small country’s weaker roster. Beware, this group has the potential of being a singular storyline for the tourney, and the Welsh could be the authors.
Intriguingly, if the Welsh move on as second-place finishers, as the competition moves onto the Round of 16, Wales would most likely meet the Netherlands. The Dutch are more talented but particularly star-crossed at World Cups making that match another potentially dramatic encounter. Unfortunately, the quarterfinals will likely have at least two if not three tourney favorites lying in wait and that is as far as the Welsh, and for that matter, the Dutch, are likely to go.
In short, anything positive that transpires for the Welsh after having made the cup will be gravy, the hard lifting has been done, and now it is time to dream about the great “what ifs!”
Photo: Gareth Bale – Shutterstock ID: 2164613955, Andrew Dowling Photo