Wales need evolution on the pitch despite World Cup successes off it

At the outset Gareth Bale said Wales’s first World Cup since 1958 was about more than football and to that end at least they probably succeeded. “Hopefully in the future when you speak to people from other countries they won’t ask where Wales is,” he said.

After leading Wales out of the tunnel to face England on Tuesday, he sipped on some water, chucked his bottle down towards the throng of photographers snapping away furiously pitchside and proceeded to rattle through the pre-match formalities. Lopsided team photograph. Another with match officials. Handshake with the referee. Lock hands with Harry Kane. Hand Kane a pennant stitched in Welsh. And – hang on a minute – give Kane a tricolour bucket hat.

On the eve of their Group B opener against the USA, Ben Davies made a slice of World Cup history by conducting a press conference entirely in Cymraeg, Welsh. For their second game, against Iran, teachers at Aaron Ramsey’s old school, Ysgol Gyfun Cwm Rhymni in Caerphilly, scrapped the timetable so that children – one wearing a Wales shirt with the words Yma o Hyd, Dafydd Iwan’s rousing anthem, the title of which has become a motto for many – could watch the game together.

This is a World Cup like no other. For the last 12 years the Guardian has been reporting on the issues surrounding Qatar 2022, from corruption and human rights abuses to the treatment of migrant workers and discriminatory laws. The best of our journalism is gathered on our dedicated Qatar: Beyond the Football home page for those who want to go deeper into the issues beyond the pitch.

Guardian reporting goes far beyond what happens on the pitch. Support our investigative journalism today.

Welsh tattoo parlours have reported an influx of Yma o Hyd requests. Carlos Queiroz, the Iran head coach, made a point of praising the Red Wall, part of a charm offensive that perhaps influenced Wales’s loyal fanbase when applauding Iran’s players on their post-match victory lap.

Job done? The reason for pointing out all of this is that Wales games have grown organically into something more than fans supporting 11 players trying to score a goal, into a showcase of national pride and cultural heritage guaranteed to warm the soul, regardless of the result.

Wales starting line up against England: Back row - goalkeeper Danny Ward, Joe Rodon, Chris Mepham, Kieffer Moore and Ethan Ampadu. Front row - Aaron Ramsey, Daniel James, Neco Williams, Joe Allen, Ben Davies and captain Gareth Bale.
The Wales starting XI line up for a team photo ahead of their match against England, with captain Gareth Bale (right) clutching the pennant and bucket hat he was to present to England captain Harry Kane. Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA

The bucket hat, for example, has become synonymous with Wales fans, to the point where on match days it is easier to spot those not wearing one. In recent months, the Football Association of Wales put 10ft bucket hat art installations in Aberystwyth, Bangor, Cardiff, Swansea and Wrexham to celebrate their place on the biggest stage on a platform decorated with the words Cymru ar ben y byd, Wales on top of the world. Another giant bucket hat was launched on Doha’s waterfront, ironically the day before fans had rainbow-coloured bucket hats confiscated at the Ahmad bin Ali stadium.

Related: Is now the time for Gareth to Bale out? Wales legend is running on empty | Ben Fisher

Of course, dDishing outGiving a red, yellow and green bucket hat to England’s captain, Tyler Adams and Ehsan Hajsafi does not mask what has been a deeply disappointing tournament on the pitch, one place where Wales certainly failed to make a lasting mark. “Welcome to the big show,” was Querioz’s warm introductory message before the two nations met, but Wales got stage fright and went missing.

Wales head back to Cardiff with one point and one goal to their name. “Everyone looked at the group and thought: ‘Maybe they’ll do this or that’ but we played against three very good teams,” said the defender Connor Roberts. “I know England blew Iran away, but they are no mugs and they showed that against us.”

Rob Page said the frustration really rankles because his team did not show their true colours. But maybe this is just where Wales are at now, the leading lights of the team dimmed. Ever since taking the reins, at first on a temporary basis and then permanently, signing a four-year contract in September, Page has spoken of key players regularly turning up for duty undercooked. Bale and Ramsey moved to California and the south of France respectively, effectively to prepare for this tournament, but the cautious optimism, in hindsight, looks misplaced.

Page will review his options between now and March, when Wales begin their Euro 2024 qualifying campaign in Croatia. By the time that tournament comes around, Bale will be touching 35, Joe Allen 34 and Ramsey 33. There is unlikely to be great change but Wales must evolve. Joe Rodon, Neco Williams and Brennan Johnson will surely be given responsibility. The same goes for Ethan Ampadu who, at the age of 22, has amassed 40 caps, as many as John Toshack and more than John Charles. Ampadu headed down the tunnel in tears at full-time on Tuesday.

“We’ll have a look at the squad and if there are young players out there that we need to push and promote, now’s the time to do it,” Page said after the 3-0 evisceration by England.

One of those will surely be the 17-year-old Luke Harris, a precocious talent viewed by Page as “the future of Welsh football” who signed a professional contract with Fulham in September, a month before making his Premier League debut. The Jersey-born No 10 was spotted aged 14 at a tournament on Guernsey by Malcolm Elias, Fulham’s chief academy scout who was influential in the development of Bale and Luke Shaw.

Bale has been at pains to provide some perspective in recent days and rightly so. Aside from the hosts, Wales, with a population of three million, were the smallest nation in Qatar. Many supporters were resigned to never seeing them on the biggest stage. In 2011, they were 117th in the Fifa rankings, sandwiched between Haiti and Grenada.

Perhaps gripes about Wales’s failure to lay a glove on three top-20 ranked opponents and reach the knockout stage at a World Cup can wait. “It’s a little bit disappointing, but for a lot of the players – myself included – I am ecstatic to be able to say that I represented my country at a World Cup,” Roberts said.

The feeling of pride is mutual.