FIFA Men's World Cup
'Sport is a way for Wales to stand out': Why Welsh pride is a World Cup advantage
FIFA Men's World Cup

'Sport is a way for Wales to stand out': Why Welsh pride is a World Cup advantage

Updated Nov. 19, 2022 8:13 a.m. ET

AL RAYYAN, Qatar — The remit of every head coach in the World Cup is, and has always been, to try to build the best national team possible. 

"But when it comes to Wales," former Welsh forward Iwan Roberts told me, "they are trying to build the atmosphere of a club." 

Wales, appearing in its first World Cup since 1958, will provide the United States with its opening test when the teams collide at Ahmed bin Ali Stadium on Monday (2 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports App). Though similarly ranked (USA is 16th, Wales is 19th) and tightly matched according to the oddsmakers (USA +145, Wales +185 per FOX Bet), there are vast differences in how American coach Gregg Berhalter and his Welsh counterpart Robert Page go about their business.  

[Wales coach eyes ‘maximum points’ against USMNT]


Berhalter has a far bigger and deeper pool of players to choose from and faced some tough decisions in narrowing his squad for Qatar to 26. Page’s squad, by necessity, includes several players who ply their trade in England’s lower leagues, plus superstars like Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey

"You can say there are disadvantages to being such a small country, and they are obvious," Roberts said. "But we also have one huge advantage. Wales are the closest thing you get at international level to a club team. The sort of team spirit and togetherness that comes from having known each other a long time — those are characteristics you don’t always get on an international level." 

There is also a level of patriotism running through the Wales squad that is hard to match. In the Olympics, Welsh athletes compete as part of the Great Britain team. It is mostly through soccer and rugby that Wales gets to express its national pride.

Last week Prince William — official title the Prince of Wales — admitted he hoped Wales does well at the World Cup, but that his primary supporting interest lies with England. 

Welsh tourism officials have even launched a digital advertising campaign around the game that they hope will get Americans to realize "Wales is a distinct country within the United Kingdom," economy minister Vaughan Gething told the BBC — and not a part of England. 

Small countries have shown in the past that togetherness and national feeling can sometimes be enough to bridge the talent gap against more esteemed soccer rivals. In 2018, Croatia (population 3.9 million) made it all the way to the final of the World Cup. At the 2016 European Championships, tiny Iceland toppled England, and Wales went on a dream run to the semifinals behind the brilliance of Bale and Ramsey. 

"Sport is a way for Wales to stand out," Roberts said. "There is a great sense of pride and responsibility, but the players have been able to handle it in a way that hasn’t been overwhelming. You have seen it in rugby and now more recently very much so in football. The country is so proud of these lads, but there is nothing like the same pressure that there is for England, or maybe even for the USA. 

"With Wales you have got a lot of lads who have come through the system, and because it is a small country it is quite a small system, so they have known each other for years. What you get with that is familiarity, just like at a club. You just get the sense that they enjoy each other’s company. It sounds like a cliché, but they are best friends. They like being around each other."  

The biggest concern, according to Roberts, is that the Welsh side "picks itself," meaning Page doesn’t have the option to make selections based off recent form or fitness. Bale, despite scoring a clutch goal for LAFC in the MLS Cup final, has not started a game since September. 

Key midfielder Joe Allen has not played for two months after sustaining a hamstring injury, while Ramsey has been in and out of the starting lineup for French club Nice. 

Berhalter, by comparison, was able to give preference to players in hot form, such as Haji Wright, who grabbed the final roster spot on account of nine goals in 12 games for Antalyaspor in Turkey. 

The matchup promises to be entertaining and has vital importance to each team’s hopes of progressing from Group B. Though the traveling contingent of USA fans — the Americans Outlaws — will be looking to make noise of their own, they might also enjoy the sight and sound of "Yma o Hyd"  — a stirring, goosebump-inducing, patriotic hymn sung by the visiting Welsh fans, that celebrates the enduring survival of the Welsh language. 

"We are Welsh, and we are proud to be Welsh," Roberts added. "And it makes a difference." 

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Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. Follow him on Twitter @MRogersFOX and subscribe to the daily newsletter.


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