World Cup·Analysis

Wales and its long-suffering fans give Canadians a dress-rehearsal of what's to come at men's World Cup

Few countries can claim as many grandparents who have heard stories about when their national team played in a World Cup without having seen it for themselves.

Explosion of joy after opening game that has been 64 years in the making

Gareth Bale of Wales celebrates after scoring late on a penalty kick to secure a 1-1 tie against the U.S. at the men's World Cup in Qatar. (Getty Images)

Chris Jones is in Qatar covering the men's World Cup for CBC Sports.

Later this week, Canadian soccer fans will end their 36-year exile from the men's World Cup. On Monday night in Doha, the Welsh offered a fabulous dress rehearsal for the breaking of droughts. They've been waiting since 1958.

Canada might like to think it has suffered. Wales has suffered. Few countries can claim as many grandparents who have heard stories about when their national team played in a World Cup without having seen it for themselves.

Legions of Welsh fans, old and young, have made the journey to Qatar. They were in their seats hours before their opening game against the Americans, easy to pick out in their red jerseys and distinctive bucket hats, everything emblazoned with the Welsh dragon. They counted down the minutes until 64 years of disappointment came to its merciful close.

Peter Noel Jones had found his seat even earlier than most. He's 54 years old with a gummy grin and comes from Pwllheli, a small market town in North Wales where four-fifths of the population speaks Welsh.

He serves as a scout for the Welsh Football Association, and his big eyes were already filling at the prospect of decades of effort coming to fruition.

"Since Gary Speed died," he said, and then he stopped to find his next words.

Gary Speed, former manager of the Wales team, committed suicide in 2011. (AFP via Getty Images)

'Everything just clicked'

Speed was the Welsh manager for a brief time before he took his own life in 2011. He was 42. Speed's early efforts, and the sense of collective purpose that's been found in his memory, has led to overdue success, only sweeter for how long it has taken.

"We've been working hard," Peter said. "And everything just clicked."

Sion Roberts stood next to his friend. He's also from Pwllheli but had flown in from Dubai for the game. At 46, he hadn't been waiting quite so long as Peter, but looking at the impossibly green grass in Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium still felt to him like fantasy.

"I never thought this would happen in my lifetime," Sion said. "It's absolutely amazing. This is what we dreamed about as little kids."

Like longer-term Canadian fans, Sion can remember some dark times — empty stadiums, poor results, nights when there was more rain than faith.

"We've had good teams, good players, Neville Southall, Ian Rush ... " Sion said.

"But it was never enough, was it?" Andy Mort, a fellow Welsh fan sitting nearby, interjected. "There were never enough."

Wales' midfielder Aaron Ramsey applauds the fans in Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium following his team's first World Cup match in 64 years. (AFP via Getty Images)

Hope returns

For Wales, the sense of something fuller surfacing — their national equivalent of Alphonso Davies' wonder goal against Panama — came at Euro in 2016. Led by all-time talent Gareth Bale, the Welsh went on an incredible run that beautiful summer in France, beating favoured Belgium in the quarter-finals before falling to Portugal in the next round.

Peter predicted the Welsh will go as far in Qatar, even though Iran and England are also in their group. "People think I'm on all kinds of stuff. But that's what I believe."

"This will be our toughest game," Andy said, nodding down at the Americans, warming up on the field below. (Andy is from Gower in the south, by the way.)

"We'll beat England," Peter said.

A Wales fan flies the flag during his team's game against the U.S. (Getty Images)

This is what happens when hope returns after an extended absence. Peter is lodging with a Welsh family who live in Doha, looking after the Emir's collection of horses. The human heart, like those magnificent animals, has a way of becoming unbridled when it's been restrained for too long.

But for now, at least, Andy and Peter could both still be proved right. The Welsh came from behind to earn a rousing 1-1 draw against a young and dangerous-looking American side. Bale equalized on a penalty in the 82nd minute, sending a lot of bucket hats into the midnight air.

Long before that late hour, of course, Wales had already won.

Before the match, the anthems were sung. The Americans went first. In the crowd, they outnumbered the Welsh by a large margin. (On Earth, after all, there are 100 times as many of them.) They shouted The Star-Spangled Banner with their usual gusto before applauding themselves for their effort.

WATCH | Soccer North: John Herdman joins Andi Petrillo

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Then, in so many ways, the Welsh finally got their turn — the moment that Peter, Sion, Andy, and thousands, maybe millions of others had closed their eyes and imagined for their entire lives, or since they were young.

The opening notes of Land of My Fathers rang out across the stadium, and the Welsh rose up and sang their lungs out, remembering everyone who never lived to see what they were about to see, remembering Gary Speed, remembering their mothers, their sisters, their sadly lost sons, and remembering, too, that sometimes being here, being able to count yourself among the lucky ones, can be trophy enough. 


Watch Soccer North live immediately following each of Canada's games on CBC GemCBCSports.ca and the CBC Sports YouTube channel

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chris Jones

Senior Contributor

Chris Jones is a journalist and screenwriter who began his career covering baseball and boxing for the National Post. He later joined Esquire magazine, where he won two National Magazine Awards for his feature writing. His work has also appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, ESPN The Magazine (RIP), and WIRED, and he is the author of the book, The Eye Test: A Case for Human Creativity in the Age of Analytics. Follow him on Twitter at @EnswellJones

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