Wales are just days away from their first World Cup fixture in 64 years, facing the United States in Group B on Monday night.
In a group that also contains England and Iran, there is a quiet confidence in the Wales camp that they can make an impact in Qatar over the coming weeks, with senior pros Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale finally getting the chance to perform on the world stage at international level for the first time in their thirties.
The pair have embarked on two consecutive European Championships, but Ramsey has revealed that this World Cup appearance had been long overdue for this particular generation of players after the late Gary Speed, who made Ramsey captain of Wales aged 20, targeted qualification for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil before his passing.
Ramsey has recently recalled tales of him telling his partner at 15 that one day he’d take Wales to the World Cup, and it had been down to Speed for instilling the belief in him from early on in his career that this was possible.
“Gary had this way about him that you would believe anything that he would say,” Ramsey said. “He was a leader. He was absolutely brilliant and convinced us all. From where we were to where we got to in that short space of time was remarkable really. Anything was possible.”
Referencing the difficult times the senior members of this Welsh squad faced early in their international careers, Ramsey owes Speed a lot of credit for helping to change the tide in Welsh football – and for playing his part in building the most successful generation of players the country has ever seen.
“Gary is always in our thoughts with everything that we have done. He was the one who got things moving for us. He definitely got us ready for these experiences that we have had.
“He will forever be in our thoughts and definitely again on Monday before our first game because that was one of the targets that he set when he first came in – to qualify for that World Cup.
“We didn’t manage to do so but this makes it even more special that we have actually gone on to do that now.”
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Wales have a reputation and track record of punching above their weight in recent years, taking a number of scalps over bigger nations in recent tournament appearances. But they have a fresher squad nowadays containing senior pros and a new generation of players in their early 20s – most of whom will be experiencing their first tournament with supporters after COVID affected Euro 2020.
“The reality is we are a small nation and we are up against giants of world football. We are always going to be trying to compete with the best teams. We have certainly shown we are capable of doing that over the last few years.
“This team experienced the last European Championships, but it was a strange one. None of us have experienced a World Cup before, so this is going to be different altogether.
“We have got a few tournaments that we have been a part of and we can take certain experiences from to help us and take it all in. This team is very humble and will take everything in as it comes.”
Ramsey, Bale and the doubtful Joe Allen will be imperative to Wales’ hopes of progress through the group, and Ramsey is still confident himself and the old guard can deliver when it matters.
“Of course, I still feel like I am more than capable of producing performances,” he said of himself. “I never doubt my ability. For me, it’s about trying to help my team as much as I can to have a successful tournament.
“I’m really looking forward to it and hopefully I can be in good form and help the team get out of the group.”
And on Bale: “I love having that opportunity to play with him in this Wales shirt. We have grown up together, we’ve been through all different age groups and things like that so we understand each other and we just try to go out there and try to represent our country as best as we can. We try to help as much as we can individually and as a team to try and achieve our goals.
“It’s just a joy to play with him and be a part of this with him.”