Furrowed brows at half-time. Old friends raised knowing eyebrows and exhaled. The concourse of the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium was the kind of place you bumped into friends from school you hadn’t seen for years, but everyone skipped pleasantries to go straight to the important stuff: “Why wasn’t Kieffer playing? Don’t we miss Joe Allen in midfield? Oh, you’ve left the DVLA to start your own business and you’ve just had twins? Nice one.” Wales were 1-0 down and had been dreadful, an uncharacteristically poor performance after a surreal day. Maybe this is what World Cups are always like. I had nothing to go on.
As we walked around Doha, Mexicans, Argentinians and Ecuadorians recognised our replica shirts and shouted “Wales! Gales! Wales!” We were clapped on to the metro by some Brazilians who asked for a photo with us. Astonishingly, they knew about John Charles and the match our two countries played in the 1958 World Cup quarter-finals. If these fans were paid-for Fifa corporate shills, they had at least done the background reading.
As we walked around the Souq Waqif market there were local teenagers in Chelsea and Real Madrid shirts, proof if you needed it that even tiny gas- and oil-rich states in the Middle East aren’t immune to football’s global reach. The sheer amount of people who mentioned Gareth Bale to us brought home the level of his fame. He is box office in a way that makes Anthony Hopkins, Catherine Zeta-Jones or Richard Burton shrink by comparison. Not bad for the son of a school caretaker from Cardiff.
Welsh fans were filmed by the locals singing Calon Lân, and I listened to my friend Trystan chat to an Ecuadorian woman in the international language of football, marvelling as he discussed Allen’s hamstrings with her in a Llangefni accent so strong it could knock the earth off its axis. As we walked to the ground via a shopping mall the size of Gloucester, fans from the US unsarcastically wished us luck and hoped we’d have a good tournament. Maybe I am too schooled in the ways of British club football, but it felt like a glimpse into a parallel universe – a conspicuous, almost unsettling lack of wanker signs as we walked to the ground past another Sunglass Hut and Louis Vuitton.
Eventually, excitedly taking photos of every Wales flag I saw became unsustainable, as we walked past restaurants and hotels that rose from the desert but were decked out like a primary school in Llanelli on St David’s Day. After a pilgrimage to the giant Welsh bucket hat in one of the fan zones, I took a photo of the sign describing Wales to the curious and uninitiated: “Wales is a nation that’s home to acts of kindness, global business, open arms and brilliant ideas …” (if you want to find out more about our fans, our culture, and our epic country, scan this QR code). Famously, when Arsenal and Wales centre-half Mel Charles returned home from our last World Cup, the ticket conductor at Swansea train station spotted his suitcase and asked if he’d been on his holidays. “We’d just played in the World Cup quarter-finals,” explained Charles incredulously. “Maybe he hadn’t been reading the papers.” A lot has changed since 1958.
Alongside 1,600 others I attended a party at a hotel, drinking Budweiser on the 55th floor at prices that were enough to make your knees knock. Joe Ledley was mobbed, Welsh football’s cultural attaché Dafydd Iwan played Yma O Hyd to scenes of delirium. I bumped into an old school friend of Gareth “G.O” Jones, the schoolteacher who took me and hundreds like me to my first Wales international as a child, an act that had as profound an influence on my personality as learning to read.
G.O devoted himself completely selflessly to grassroots and youth football in west Wales, a lifetime of thankless tasks that came from an entirely pure, uncontaminated love of the game. “Dychmyga, Elis. Cymru yng Nghwpan y Byd. Bydde Gareth wrth ei fodd.” (“Imagine, Elis. Wales in a World Cup. Gareth would have been delighted.”) I spoke to members of the Rainbow Wall who had brought rainbow bucket hats to put on any empty seats, to represent their LGBTQ+ friends who didn’t feel they could be there. Qatar could be brilliant. It was never far from being bleak.
I’m sure if we’d qualified more often our first game in a World Cup would have been less emotionally charged, an opening match of the group stage feeling as routine as brushing your teeth or apologising to the cashier at Boots for not having an Advantage card. If you take our form since the inception of the World Cup in 1930 as a guide, this will happen next when I am 106. No wonder I had a selfie with the Rwandan security guard who was an Arsenal fan and loved Aaron Ramsey. I wanted to soak it all in. We all did.
At the ground the anthem crackled, but the team were flat. Nervy and flat-footed, we were lucky to go into the break 1-0 down. Kieffer Moore came on and the team improved immediately, and Wales began to play with the zip the occasion demanded. Bale won the penalty, Bale took the penalty, our end went crackers. He Came, He Saw, He Equalised. At full-time Neco Williams wept for his grandfather who had died only the day before. It reminded me of Ramsey, sobbing on the turf of the Cardiff City Stadium after we qualified as his thoughts turned to Gary Speed, the managerial adrenaline shot Welsh football needed so badly in 2010, and for whom qualification to a World Cup was always the ultimate ambition. I was told Wales fans had their rainbow bucket hats confiscated on the way into the ground, and I wondered how many more promises would be broken before the tournament ended. 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.