Ffurrowed brows at halftime. Old friends raised knowing eyebrows and exhaled. The hall of the Ahmad Bin Ali stadium was the kind of place where you bumped into friends from school you hadn’t seen in years, but everyone skipped pleasantries to get straight to the important stuff: “Why did Kieffer play not? Aren’t we missing Joe Allen in midfield? Oh, you left the DVLA to start your own business and you just had twins? Good.” Wales were 1-0 down and had been terrible, an unusually poor performance after a surreal day. Maybe World Cups are always like that. I had nothing to go on.
As we walked through Doha, Mexicans, Argentines and Ecuadorians recognized our replica shirts and shouted “Wales! Storm! Wales!” We were thrown into the metro by some Brazilians who wanted to take a picture with us. Amazingly, they knew about John Charles and the game our two countries played in the quarter-finals of the 1958 World Cup. If these fans were paid Fifa corporate shills, they would at least have done the background reading.
As we walked through the Souq Waqif market there were local teenagers in Chelsea and Real Madrid shirts, proof if you needed it that even small gas and oil rich states in the Middle East are not immune to the global reach of football. The sheer number of people Gareth Bale mentioned to us brought out the level of his fame. He’s box office in a way that shrinks Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Zeta-Jones or Richard Burton by comparison. Not bad for the son of a Cardiff school janitor.
Welsh fans were filmed by locals singing Calon Lan, and I listened to my friend Trystan talk to an Ecuadorian woman in the international language of soccer, marveling as he discussed Allen’s hamstrings with her in a Llangefni accent so strong it could knock the earth off its ashes. As we made our way to the ground through a mall the size of Gloucester, fans from the US unsarcasticly wished us luck and hoped we would have a good tournament. Perhaps I’m too schooled in the ways of British club football, but it felt like a glimpse into a parallel universe – a striking, almost unsettling lack of wankers as we made our way to ground past another Sunglass Hut and Louis Vuitton.
Eventually it became untenable to excitedly snap photos of every Welsh flag I saw as we passed restaurants and hotels rising out of the desert but decked out like a primary school in Llanelli on St David’s Day. After a pilgrimage to the giant bucket hat of Wales in one of the fan zones, I took a picture of the board describing Wales to the curious and the uninitiated: “Wales is a nation home to acts of kindness, global affairs, open arms and brilliant ideas…” (if you want to know more about our fans, our culture and our epic country, scan this QR code) It is famous that when Arsenal and Wales central defender Mel Charles came home from our last World Cup, the ticket conductor at Swansea train station saw his suitcase and asked if he had been on holiday.”We were just playing in the World Cup quarter-finals,” Charles explained incredulously. “Maybe he hadn’t read the papers.”Since 1958 much has changed.
Along with 1,600 others, I attended a party at a hotel, drinking Budweiser on the 55th floor at prices that made your knees buckle. Joe Ledley was mobbed, Welsh football cultural attache Dafydd Iwan played Yma O Hyd to scenes of delirium. I ran into an old school friend of Gareth ‘GO’ Jones, the school teacher who took me and hundreds of others like me to my first Wales international as a child, an act that had as much of an impact on my personality as learning to read.
GO devoted themselves completely selflessly to grassroots and youth football in West Wales, a life of thankless tasks born out of a completely pure, untainted love of the game. ‘Dychmyga, Elis. Cymruyng Nghwpan and Byd. Bydde Gareth wrth ei fodd. (“Imagine Elis. Wales in a World Cup. Gareth would have been thrilled.”) I spoke to members of the Rainbow Wall who brought rainbow hats to place on empty seats to represent their LGBTQ+ friends who didn’t feel they could be there. Qatar could be brilliant. It was never far from gloomy.
I’m sure if we’d qualified more often our first match in a World Cup would have been less emotionally charged, an opening match of the group stage that felt as routine as brushing your teeth or apologizing to the cashier at Boots for not have a Benefit card. If you take our form from the start of the World Cup in 1930 as a guide, this is what will happen when I’m 106. No wonder I had a selfie with the Rwandan guard who was an Arsenal fan and loved Aaron Ramsey. I wanted to take it all in. We all did.
The national anthem crackled on the ground, but the team was flat. Nervous and with flat feet, we were lucky enough to go into the break 1-0. Kieffer Moore came on and the team immediately improved, and Wales started playing with the speed the occasion demanded. Bale won the penalty, Bale took the penalty, our end was a bull’s eye. He came, he saw, he made right. At full-time, Neco Williams wept for his grandfather who had passed away just the day before. It reminded me of Ramsey, sobbing on the turf of Cardiff City Stadium after we’d qualified, his mind turning to Gary Speed, the managerial adrenaline rush Welsh football so desperately needed in 2010, and for whom qualifying for a World Cup was always the ultimate. ambition. I was told that Wales fans had confiscated their rainbow hats on their way to the ground, and I wondered how many more promises would be broken before the tournament was over. Welcome to the World Cup.
Elis James has donated his fee for this column to Amnesty International, which is campaigning for Qatar and FIFA to establish a compensation fund for migrant workers.