DOHA, Qatar. For most national team captains arriving for the World Cup, the dream is to be left with the trophy at Lusail Stadium on December 18th. But things are a little different for Wales captain Gareth Bale. He’s in Qatar to win matches, obviously, but there’s more to it than that. He hopes that when the World Cup kicks off in 2042, another player will emerge to take the Welsh team to the biggest football arena, and the memory of 2022 is stuck in his head.

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This is the first World Cup in Wales during Bale’s lifetime and he talks about his childhood memories of the competition being ruined because his country wasn’t there. But he hopes that after leading Wales to their first qualification since 1958, youngsters will watch games against the United States, Iran on Friday and England at home and be inspired to follow in his footsteps.

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“It was my dream as a child to see Wales at the World Cup but to be on the team that made it so is an incredible feeling and I am honored to be able to do this for the country,” said Bale. “For youngsters growing up now to have Wales at the World Cup, even if they don’t realize it now, is an incredible experience. I wish I had it.”

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“Having done what we have done, we hope that in the future we will have a strong national team and in 20 years they will be where I am now saying that Wales qualifying for the 2022 World Cup was what inspired them to played football and loved it.”

Bale, a five-time Champions League winner with Real Madrid, has gone out of his way to bring football back to life in his country. Wales’ last great player, Ryan Giggs, was regularly criticized for putting his club Manchester United ahead of his country, and despite making his international debut as a teenager in 1991, he did not play in friendly matches until 2000. Non-competitive games were heavily influenced by then United manager Sir Alex Ferguson who wanted his star players to be the best they could be, but at times this gave the feeling that Welsh football was irrelevant, especially when many in Wales were already considering rugby. union to be their national sport.

Giggs played 963 times for United in his 23-year career, but only made 64 appearances for Wales. In contrast, when Bale starts against Iran at Al Rayyan Stadium, he will win his 110th cap. He hopes to add a few more in Qatar by advancing from the group, as Wales did at the 2016 European Championship – their first major tournament in 58 years – and at the Euro 2020, played in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Matching their Euro semi-final appearance six years ago may be a stretch, but a commendable 1-1 draw against the United States in their first game opened up the possibility of qualifying from Group B to set up a round of 16 draw against the Netherlands.

More is at stake. Wales was particularly hard hit by the UK cost of living crisis as a study by the Abrdn Financial Fairness Trust and the University of Bristol found that 22% of households were forced to significantly cut spending cope with rising food prices and energy bills.

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Wales manager Rob Page used his press conference ahead of the kick-off game against the US to say he hopes his team can give some relief to people who may be struggling at home. He also paid tribute to the fans who spent thousands of pounds to travel to Qatar to support the players.

“I have nothing but praise for the red wall and our fans, they have played a huge role in helping us qualify for the World Cup,” Page said. “The commitment they continue to show by coming to support us is incredible. We haven’t qualified for too many big tournaments and I think they just want to be part of it.

“Even at the most recent European Championships, they weren’t able to travel due to COVID, so I think that made a lot of people want to come to Qatar. I have nothing but praise and respect because it’s a big, big commitment.”

The World Cup fever has gripped not only Doha, but all of Wales, from Cardiff and Swansea on the south coast to Wrexham in the north.

“We get videos and photos from home on our WhatsApp group and friends send stuff,” Bale said. “You can see flags raised, caps and shirts off, so we feel at home.

“Watching the World Cups as a kid, I was always a little disappointed because Wales wasn’t there. When you were a kid who didn’t have his own country at the World Cup, it took away his uniqueness a bit.

“For us to be a team that crossed the line is incredible. It is important to develop football in our country and inspire a new generation to have more children play football.”

Bale’s first World Cup memory is of the 1998 French Championship, not from a specific match or goal, but rather from the fact that he had a pencil case with the tournament’s logo on it. For generations of fans, it was as close as they could get, but Bale and Page provided a real connection by sharing the stage with the likes of England, Argentina and Brazil.

Wales, a country of just over three million people – the same size as Iowa – and whose best national teams play in England’s league system, is aiming for a place in the play-offs in Qatar and a place among the best. 16 teams of the world. However, there is a feeling that what they have already achieved off the field is of much greater importance.