World Cup 2022: ‘Anyone but England’

Gareth Bale celebrates scoring against England at Euro 2016Host nation: Qatar Dates: 20 November-18 December Coverage: Live on BBC TV, BBC iPlayer, BBC Radio 5 Live, BBC Radio Wales, BBC Radio Cymru, BBC Sounds and the BBC Sport website and app. Day-by-day TV listings - Full coverage detailsIf you hear a Wales fan utter the
Gareth Bale celebrates scoring against England at Euro 2016Host nation: Qatar Dates: 20 November-18 December Coverage: Live on BBC TV, BBC iPlayer, BBC Radio 5 Live, BBC Radio Wales, BBC Radio Cymru, BBC Sounds and the BBC Sport website and app. Day-by-day TV listingsFull coverage details

If you hear a Wales fan utter the words “anyone but England”, it may not necessarily be a declaration of support for their neighbours’ opponents.

Sure, there might be a little schadenfreude involved but, for many, that phrase is more representative of a desire not to face England.

Wales have waited 64 years to play at a World Cup, a precious opportunity to bask in the tournament’s technicolour glow and showcase this nation to a global audience it has never enjoyed before.

What they did not want was to find themselves in England’s orbit again; to have their time in the limelight diminished by the overbearing presence of their oldest rivals, for whom there is nothing new about gracing this grandest stage.

So when the World Cup draw was made in April, there was a collective groan around Wales when the winner of their play-off was put in the same group as England. They had not even qualified yet – that would come in June – and already a little of the magic about the prospect of a first World Cup since 1958 had gone.

‘Put your big boy pants on to beat England’ – Page’s message to WalesPlay Bale, drop Ramsey – your Wales XI for England

“Part of the whole attraction of the World Cup is playing against different places, playing against players you don’t know about – it’s meant to be a little bit exotic,” says Martin Johnes, a professor of history at Swansea University whose areas of expertise include the history of football in Wales and the country’s relationship with England.

“England is the one team that everybody in Wales knows a lot about, the players are familiar, a lot of our players will play with their players.

“Sometimes the fuss around it can get in the way and be a distraction, so certainly for a lot of the hardcore Welsh football fans, they would have wished we hadn’t been drawn in England’s group.”

Wales finally had their moment in the sun – or the floodlit glare in the pitch-black night of the Qatari desert – as they marked their first World Cup match for 64 years with a draw against the United States.

There was hope that Wales could have all but secured their passage to the knockout stages before facing England, but those aspirations were destroyed by the dismal 2-0 defeat by Iran.

Now Wales face England on Tuesday needing to win to have any chance of reaching the knockout stages.

‘Every team has weaknesses’ – Wales’ Bale ready for England

“There is a rivalry and it is the historic game. If you went back to the 1930s, players would tell you it’s the one game they really wanted to win,” says Johnes.

“It’s undoubtedly always been more important to Wales than it has been to England, but Wales has changed.

“We’re trying to build a new nation, a modern nation. Nations that define themselves by who they’re not, that define themselves by rivalries against their big neighbours, no matter how important that has been historically, it seems a bit small-minded.

“So I would hope that we can move beyond that.”

There is another reason why Wales do not want to play against England: their miserable record in the fixture.

In 103 meetings since 1879, Wales have lost 68, drawn 21 and won 14, with only four of those victories coming since 1938.

Wins have become even rarer in recent years because the fixture has also become rarer, with the annual British Home Championship ending in 1984.

World Cup permutations: What do England and Wales need to do to qualify for last 16?Ashley Williams: ‘Let’s show the world what Wales are really about’

That was also the year when Wales last beat England, with a 20-year-old Mark Hughes scoring the only goal 17 minutes into his international debut at the Racecourse Ground in Wrexham.

“It’s always a big game against England and, for me personally, being my debut it was massive,” Hughes recalls.

“I had just broken into the Welsh team and Manchester United’s first team as well, so everything was going very quickly in my career.

“As soon as the anthems had been played and the whistle went, as a very proud Welshman I started running around and trying to affect the game.

“There was a free-kick and Alan Davies, who is sadly no longer with us, put this ball in. I remember Mick Duxbury, who was another team-mate at Manchester United, missed the ball, and I had to stoop and head it in.

“It went past Peter Shilton and I am thinking ‘goodness me, I have just scored past Peter Shilton’, who I had been watching for years. I couldn’t really believe what was going on.

“Everybody jumped on me and I realised, ‘goodness me, I have just scored against England on my debut’. From that point on it was a bit of a blur – I was still on a high from the goal.

“It was a game that always had a lot of significance, maybe less so for England rightly or wrongly, wrongly on this occasion because we beat them.

“But we always had that desire to get one over on England.”

‘An underdog that bites’

That is a sentiment which permeates through much of Welsh sport.

Even if the men’s football teams have only met six times in the past 38 years, Wales and England have an enduring rivalry in other spheres.

Rugby union is perhaps the most obvious example, as Wales and England are the joint most successful teams in Five and Six Nations history with 39 titles each.

There are also several other sports where the two countries regularly collide, as Hughes can attest.

“My daughter [Xenna] plays hockey for Wales. They go up against England and I see it in hockey as well,” the former Wales and Manchester City manager adds.

“They [England] have all the resources. Wales have absolutely nothing and have to pay for themselves to travel.

“There is that feeling of a little bit of an underdog, but we are an underdog that bites.

“Every time we go up against England we want to give a good account of ourselves and hopefully overcome them because a lot of things are against us, or we have felt in the past haven’t allowed us to play against England on an even wicket, so to speak.

“When we get the opportunity to give any England team a bloody nose, we are more than happy to do it.”

That is the essence of Wales’ sporting rivalry with England; it transcends events on the field and is rooted in deeper historical and societal context.

The late Phil Bennett, a former Wales rugby union captain and one of the sport’s greatest fly-halves of all time, tapped into that when he delivered an impassioned team talk before a Five Nations match against England in 1977.

“They’ve taken our coal, our water, our steel. They buy our homes and live in them for a fortnight every year. What have they given us? Absolutely nothing,” Bennett implored at the old Arms Park in Cardiff.

“We’ve been exploited, controlled and punished by the English – and that’s who you are playing this afternoon.”

Of course Wales won that day.

Robert Page might not opt for the same approach on Tuesday, but the defiant spirit of Bennett’s words is alive in Wales’ official song of this World Cup, ‘Yma o Hyd’ which translates as ‘Still Here’.

Dafydd Iwan’s anthem, re-recorded for the tournament with the supplementary voices of Welsh fans, is an Odyssean protest song.

It charts the history of Wales from its very beginning, through its 13th-century conquest by the English to the closure of coal mines in the 1980s and to the present day, building to the chorus which declares of Wales and the Welsh language, ‘despite everyone and everything, we’re still here’.

When Wales last played England at a major tournament, Gareth Bale put them in front with a thumping long-range free-kick in a Euro 2016 group match.

Although late goals from Jamie Vardy and Daniel Sturridge consigned Wales to a gut-wrenching defeat in France that day, they recovered with an exhilarating win over Russia to win the group.

Wales went on to overcome Belgium in an epic quarter-final – the greatest night in Welsh football history – but that remains the last time they beat a team ranked higher than them in a competitive match.

They will need to end that wait against England on Tuesday to have any chance of reaching the knockout stage, as they have done in all three of their three previous major tournaments. Unless the USA and Iran draw, Wales will need to beat England by four goals.

It will be a tall order but, where their rivalry with England is concerned, Wales are used to being the underdog. In Qatar, for now at least, Wales are still here.

Fifa World Cup: Groups and scheduleWorld Cup TV coverage guide

Get the latest results and goal notifications for any team at the Fifa World Cup by downloading the BBC Sport app: Appleexternal-linkAndroidexternal-linkAmazonexternal-link

Read More

Articles You Might Like

Share This Article

Get Your Weekly Sport Dose

Subscribe to TheWhistle and recieve notifications on new sports posts