Gareth Bale understood the purpose of the question. “Obviously I know what you are aiming at,” he told journalists before the start of this World Cup. “I am not stupid.”
The topic of discussion was passion. More specifically, Welsh passion, and whether patriotic pride burns brighter for Bale and his team-mates than it does for certain other countries.
The question was asked, in part, because Bale had spoken rather mischievously about this issue in the summer of 2016, when Wales faced England in the group stages of the European Championship. “I think we have got a lot more passion and pride about us than them,” said Bale of England back then. “If you are Welsh, we feel more pride and passion than anyone else.”
This year, ahead of another group-stage meeting with England at another international tournament, Bale was a little more measured. He did not directly name England this time, showing more reluctance to stoke the flames ahead of a game that has been dubbed the ‘Battle of Britain’.
He did, however, reiterate his genuine belief that, for Wales players, the emotions of representing their country are different to those of other players from other nations. “Personally I feel we are the most passionate country in the world and that will never change in my mind,” Bale said, earlier this month.
No good can come from a debate about whether England or Wales players feel more passionate about their nation. How could such a thing be quantified anyway? Far more interesting is the way in which Wales have deliberately and strategically tapped into these notions of pride and national unity in recent years, in a way that England have not.
Such emotions have become a fundamental part of the Welsh journey over the past decade. The ferocity with which their anthem is sung, the connection with the ‘Red Wall’ of supporters, the push towards the Welsh language, the adoption of Yma O Hyd — written by Welsh nationalist Dafydd Iwan — as their unofficial anthem: it all taps into the same theme. Football as Welshness, Welshness in football.
For the Wales players, one of the delights of World Cup qualification is that it has put their country on the map. As Bale said earlier this month: “Hopefully in the future when you speak to people from other countries they won’t ask where Wales is. They will know.”
Part of it, of course, is the underdog mentality. Wales is a country of around three million people, compared to England’s population of around 56 million. The Welsh are the self-styled Dafydds, going up against a footballing Goliath, and they know they will only have a chance if they stick together. “We are stronger as a group,” said Bale on Monday.
This has been the case off the pitch, too, with Welsh fan culture thriving as the team has grown. Now there are thousands of travelling Wales supporters, wearing the bucket hats and singing the songs. It is a remarkable contrast from the previous era – in 1994, there were only 11 Wales supporters in the stadium when they faced Georgia away. Wales were beaten 5-0.
This internally-held view of Wales as the plucky upstarts, up against the big beasts of England, has coloured relations between the two national teams over the past six years. First there were Bale’s comments about passion before Euro 2016, and then came the video footage of Wales players wildly celebrating England’s loss to Iceland later in that tournament. “It wasn’t nice,” said England’s Luke Shaw this week.
This World Cup journey is almost certainly coming to an end for Wales, who must defeat England and hope for a draw between USA and Iran (or beat England by four goals). The end of this tournament will signal a shift in generations, too, as the ageing stars will soon be replaced by young up-and-comers.
But those values – pride in the shirt, the importance of Welsh identity – will live on, irrespective of the result against England. They are now embedded in this squad and this setup, so much so that even the English-born players are fully schooled in its significance. For example Kieffer Moore, the striker, was born and raised in England (and played for England C) but is so committed to his Welshness now that he said, before the tournament, that it would be “amazing” to knock out Gareth Southgate’s side.
A few months before this World Cup, actor Michael Sheen delivered a rousing television speech that quickly went viral. In the above clip, Sheen spoke of “one nation singing with one voice”, of a “victory song that floats through the Valleys like a red mist”. Some of the words of that speech have been pasted to the walls of the Wales team hotel in Qatar, furthering still those feelings of patriotic power.
The great shame for Wales is that their passion has not been converted into performance at this tournament. Emotional willpower can only take them so far, after all, and as they face their bigger neighbours, the quality of their team remains in doubt. The strength of their patriotic pride, though, does not.
Page says it is time for ‘big boy pants’
Rob Page, the Wales manager, has told his players to “put our big boy pants on” ahead of Tuesday’s meeting with England, after admitting his team crumbled under the pressure in their devastating loss to Iran.
Wales need to beat England if they are to stand any chance of qualifying for the knockout stages of the World Cup, and Page suggested he is willing to drop both Bale and Aaron Ramsey from his starting line-up if necessary.
Bale bluntly rejected any suggestions that this could be his last international game, meanwhile, simply saying “nope” when asked if this match would mark the end of his Wales career.
A narrow victory would be enough for Wales to advance to the knockout stages, provided Iran draw with USA. If there is a winner between Iran and USA, Wales must beat England by four goals in order to go through.
With the odds against them, Page is demanding a performance to make the Wales supporters proud. “My frustration and disappointment for the players is that we have shown nowhere near the levels of performance that have got us to this World Cup,” he said. “That is what really disappoints me.
“Irrespective of the other result, whether we go home or go through, we have to give a performance that our supporters can be proud of.
“We are all getting criticism now and rightly so, because results are not going our way and that is the industry we are in. We are big enough to take it – it is not a problem. We put our big boy pants on and get on with it.”
On the possibility of Ramsey and Bale not starting against England, Page added: “It is a big ask for anybody in this environment to go four days later. I am going to pick a team that I think can go out and compete against England, whether that is with or without them.
“Whether they come on and have an impact or start and last an hour or 90 minutes, they are talented footballers.”
Bale said he wants Wales to take inspiration from the other surprise results in this tournament so far.
“We are under no illusions,” he said. “It will be hard. We are going to give everything like we always do. There have been a few shocks in the tournament already and there is no reason why we can’t do the same.”