When Qatar was chosen as the host of the 2022 World Cup in December 2010, Wales were ranked 112th in the world.
In August 2011, Welsh football hit a new low as the men’s national team fell to 117th place, below Haiti, the Faroe Islands and Mozambique, with Liechtenstein threatening to overtake them.
Eleven years later, Wales will take part in the World Cup for the first time in 64 years.
The final play-off victory over Ukraine means this side – once with only five European nations seeded below them – have now qualified for three of the last four major tournaments.
But how did this happen? As some of the main reasons show, it’s more than just Gareth Bale.
Turn a weakness into a strength
Wales have never been shy about having star players, even in the barren years when qualification hinted at them.
What they have often lacked is the depth to team up with.
This is no longer the case now, something that dates back to the days of John Toshack – and contributed to this lowly 2011 position.
Players with potential had their chance in the squad, even before they were considered ready at club level.
International experience beyond their years helped pave the way for a first qualification in 2016 under Chris Coleman, and has remained the case in recent years.
Just take Chelsea’s Ethan Ampadu, who barely played at RB Leipzig and suffered back-to-back relegation on other loans with Sheffield United and Venezia, but was 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’s what they have done and can do in a redshirt that matters most.
Players like Joe Rodon, Wayne Hennessey – even Bale and Aaron Ramsey – have all featured in key qualifiers this campaign with little to no club playing time under their belts.
Other, larger nations would have turned to others. Wales are capable of staying true and trust has so often been rewarded.
Find a house
When it comes to stories of World Cup heartbreak in Wales, the story of playing against Scotland at Anfield is often the first for fans’ frustration.
Aside from that Joe Jordan handball, the Football Association of Wales (FAW) has never had tales of games on the move from the spiritual home of the day: Wrexham Racecourse.
The lessons have long been learned. It would have been easy in recent years for the FAW to try to monetize success and move major matches to the Principality Stadium, with its capacity more than double that of Cardiff City Stadium.
But the latter is now that team’s home, with the draw against Ukraine marking the 19th game unbeaten on the pitch. They have lost only one qualifier there in nine years.
A unique atmosphere was created among the supporters, a reassurance and confidence found among the players who repeatedly affirmed 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 was booed once there, giving his plea even more relevance.
Push towards professionalism
Manager Robert Page won’t need a reminder, but there was a time when Wales’ preparations were laughable at best.
There was a time, after all, when under Bobby Gould a team of Premier League players trained in an open prison.
Things had changed significantly under Gary Speed with a sports science approach and better club relations; an increase in confidence in Welsh staff has led to fewer untimely withdrawals of key players.
Yet even as Euro 2016 approached, the facilities did not match the mood with temporary tents set up for warm-up equipment at the Wales training base near Cardiff .
Achieving the final four in France that summer and the revenue it generated helped a lot. A decision was made to use a large portion of this monies to ensure the top tier had the platform to build on success.
Wales now have their own grounds and training base on the grounds of the hotel they use as their headquarters, replicating what players expect at the highest level.
Create a club environment
Club football may seem like the dominant form of the sport to many, but for the players of Wales there is nothing quite like playing for their country.
As Page said the day after Sunday’s World Cup play-off triumph: “They’re not just teammates and colleagues, they’re best friends.”
This is clear when you see Bale joking around with Wayne Hennessey or when Ramsey and Chris Gunter are around camp together. They have played together since they were young, have risen through the ranks together and are now true friends.
This has helped foster an environment more akin to 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 setup.
Bale embodies that spirit. Unlike some of his top-tier predecessors, he shows up in friendlies whenever he can and will often be there with the team even when injured.
The 32-year-old showed his commitment last week. Rather than traveling straight from Real Madrid’s Champions League celebrations in Poland, where Wales were playing a Nations League game, Bale first flew to Portugal, where Wales had participated in a training camp, and joined his teammates specifically so he could be with them. for their trip to Poland.
‘Together Stronger’ was the mantra that underpinned Wales’ historic run to the semi-finals of Euro 2016 and, with Bale and his fellow senior players paving the way for the younger generation, it is the ethos that laid the foundations of what is now Wales. Hit.
Develop new confidence
In the build-up to Sunday’s World Cup play-off final, the average Wales supporter would have epitomized football fan anxiety.
Given Wales’ history with the competition, that was understandable – 64 years of angst and near-misses that had scarred their memories.
Talk to the players, though, and they couldn’t 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 at their training ground, at the team hotel or in media interviews. The day before the match, they even took the time to play a game of cricket in the gymnasium.
Page’s men knew what was at stake, but they blocked out the emotion of the occasion. It was business as usual, as they kept saying.
They were confident too, and why wouldn’t they be? These Wales players are used to winning.
To mortals asking the questions or watching from the rostrum, it all seemed refreshing and un-Welsh. This is not a nation where outward assertiveness is the norm, so this team’s poised confidence has come as a welcome change.
As Page says, Wales will be taking that bullish attitude with them to Qatar.
Build a strong fan culture
There was a time in the not too distant past when following Wales was a relatively niche activity.
Crowds dwindled as Wales tumbled in the world rankings, while mainstream interest waned outside committed hardcore.
Over time and as the team has improved, this core has grown into an inclusive cast of thousands who travel the world 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 inspiration to pull the team through their toughest times.
Wales fans are loyal and represent their country with distinction. Tens of thousands of them traveled to France for Euro 2016, where they were rewarded with a UEFA Outstanding Achievement Award.
This Wales team – and the fan culture that surrounds it – is an expression of an independent and confident footballing nation, which will be strongly supported in Qatar, albeit with their LGBT supporters pledge to boycott the tournament due to the host country’s stance on gay rights.