How Wales rose from depths of 117th in Fifa rankings to World Cup qualification

Wales celebrate their win over Ukraine to qualify for the World Cup
Wales are on their way to Qatar to play in their first World Cup since 1958

When Qatar was chosen as the 2022 World Cup host in December 2010, Wales were ranked 112th in the world.

By August 2011, Welsh football reached a new low as the national men’s side fell to 117th place, below the likes of Haiti, the Faroe Islands and Mozambique, with Liechtenstein threatening to overtake them.

Eleven years on, Wales will be at the World Cup for the first time in 64 years.

The play-off final victory over Ukraine means this side – once with only five European nations ranked below them – have now qualified for three of the last four major tournaments.

But how did it happen? As some of the key reasons show, it’s more than just simply Gareth Bale.

Turning weakness into a strength

Wales has never been shy of star players, even in the barren years when qualification alluded them.

What they have often lacked is depth to make a team.

Not so now, something that stemmed from the days of John Toshack – and contributed to that lowly 2011 standing.

Players with potential were given their chance in the side, even before they were deemed ready at club level.

The international experience beyond their years helped forge the path to a first qualification in 2016 under Chris Coleman, and has remained the case in recent years.

Just take Chelsea’s Ethan Ampadu, who hardly played at RB Leipzig and suffered consecutive relegations during other loans with Sheffield United and Venezia, but has been allowed to develop and now has 34 caps at just 21.

The mindset has been for some time that, regardless of form and fortune away from Wales, it is what they have done and can do in a red shirt that matters most.

The likes of Joe Rodon, Wayne Hennessey – even Bale and Aaron Ramsey – all went into key qualifiers in this campaign with little or no club game time to their name.

Other, larger, nations would have looked to others. Wales are able to stay faithful, and the confidence has so often been repaid.

Finding a home

When it comes to tales of Wales’ World Cup heartbreak, the story of playing Scotland at Anfield is often the first for fan frustration.

Aside from that Joe Jordan handball, the Football Association of Wales (FAW) has never lived down stories of moving games from the spiritual home at the time: Wrexham’s Racecourse.

Lessons have long been learned. It would have been easy in recent years for the FAW to try and monetise success and move key fixtures to the Principality Stadium, with its capacity more than double that of Cardiff City Stadium.

But the latter is very much now the home of this team, the Ukraine tie marking the 19th game without defeat at the ground. They have lost just one qualifier there in nine years.

A unique atmosphere has been created among the fans, a comfort and a confidence found among players who have repeatedly stated their desire to stay put.

Indeed, then Wales captain Ashley Williams showed the strength of that feeling when he called it home in 2016; his status as a Swansea City player once booed at the venue giving even more pertinence to his plea.

Wales huddle
Cardiff City Stadium was sold out once again for Wales’ World Cup play-off final win over Ukraine

Pushing for professionalism

Manager Robert Page will not need reminding, but there was a time when Wales’ preparations were laughable at best.

There was a time, after all, when under Bobby Gould, a squad of Premier League players would train at an open prison.

Things had changed significantly under Gary Speed with an approach to sports science and better relationships with clubs; an increase in trust in Welsh staff saw a decrease in untimely withdrawals of key players.

Still, even in the lead-up to Euro 2016, the facilities didn’t match the mindset with temporary tents installed for warm-up equipment at Wales’ training base near Cardiff.

The last-four achievement in France that summer and the revenue it generated helped significantly. A decision was taken to use a large chunk of those sums into making sure the senior level had the platform to build on success.

Wales now have their own pitches and training base on the grounds of the hotel they use as their headquarters, replicating what players would expect at the top level.

Creating a club environment

Club football might seem like the dominant form of the sport for many but, for Wales’ players, there is nothing quite like playing for their country.

As Page said in the aftermath of Sunday’s World Cup play-off triumph: “They’re not just team-mates and colleagues, they’re best friends.”

That much is clear when you see Bale joke around with Wayne Hennessey or when Ramsey and Chris Gunter are together around camp. They have played together since their youth days, risen through the ranks together and are now genuine friends.

It has helped foster an environment more like that of a club team, where players have the bonds you would associate with people who are together all year round rather than the intermittent periods of an international set-up.

Bale embodies that spirit. Unlike some of his high-profile predecessors, he turns up to friendly matches whenever he can and will often be there with the squad even when he is injured.

The 32-year-old demonstrated his commitment last week. Rather than travel straight from Real Madrid’s Champions League celebrations to Poland, where Wales were playing a Nations League match, Bale first flew to Portugal, where Wales had been on a training camp, and joined his team-mates specifically so he could be with them for their journey to Poland.

‘Together Stronger’ was the mantra which underpinned Wales’ historic run to the Euro 2016 semi-finals and, with Bale and his fellow senior players leading the way for the younger generation, that is the ethos which has formed the foundations for Wales’ current success.

Wales celebrate their win over Ukraine to qualify for the World Cup
‘Diolch i’r Wal Goch’ translates as ‘Thank you to the Red Wall’, the nickname for Wales’ fans

Developing a new confidence

In the build-up to Sunday’s World Cup play-off final, the average Wales supporter would have embodied the anxiety of football fandom.

Given Wales’ history with the competition, that was understandable – 64 years of anguish and near misses which had scarred their memories.

Speak to the players, though, and they could not have been more different. Some are old enough to remember some of Wales’ painful failures, but are not weighed down by them.

Instead, they were a picture of calm, whether that was at their training ground, team hotel or during interviews with the media. On the day before the match, they even made time for a game of cricket in the gym.

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Page’s men knew what was at stake but they blocked out the emotion of the occasion. This was business as usual, as they all kept saying.

They were confident too, and why wouldn’t they be? These Wales players are used to winning.

For the mortals asking the questions or watching from the stand, it all felt refreshingly un-Welsh. This is not a nation where outward self-assurance is the norm, so the poised confidence of this squad has come as a welcome change.

As Page says, Wales will be taking that bullish attitude with them to Qatar.

Building a strong fan culture

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when following Wales was a relatively niche pursuit.

Crowds were dwindling as Wales were tumbling down the world rankings, while general interest was on the wane outside of the committed hardcore.

Over time and as the team has improved, that core has evolved into an inclusive cast of thousands who travel the globe in large numbers to support their team.

They share a bond with the players, who can be seen sporting the same distinctive red, yellow and green bucket hats as their supporters.

Bale has often described the Red Wall as Wales’ 12th man, a loud and passionate source of inspiration to pull the team through its toughest spells.

Wales’ fans are loyal, and they represent their country with distinction. Tens of thousands of them travelled to France for Euro 2016, where they were recognised with an “outstanding contribution” award from Uefa.

This Wales team – and the fan culture around it – is an expression of a confident independent football nation, one which will be strongly supported in Qatar, albeit with their LGBT supporters pledging a boycott of the tournament due to the host country’s stance on gay rights..

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