KJ’s World Cup Diary (Day 2): Tournament comes alive at last with USA-Wales atmosphere

Monday November 21st, 2022

World Cup matches don’t usually kick off at 10pm. Then again, World Cups rarely give you an opportunity to visit two games in a day either. Today I was thankful for both.

England vs. Iran felt like the main course on the menu in today’s double dip and in many ways it delivered. We had eight goals, the most at a men’s World Cup match since the 2014 semifinal between Brazil and Germany, fantastic World Cup debuts from 19-year-old Jude Bellingham and 20-year-old Bukayo Saka, and a thoroughly strong collective performance out of the gate from one of the contenders here in Qatar.

Yet, despite eight goals being retrieved from the back of the net, despite a reasonably loud ‘Barmy Army’ supporters’ section and a large crowd in attendance, the entire game felt a little soulless.

Being in the country for four days you get used to things being different. It’s remarkably dry here, you don’t see the colours or the nature you are used to, and the extreme contrasts had seemed to spread to the football pitches here as well.

It’s not that Qatar-Ecuador and England-Iran were not good games to watch. They just felt more like an event, a showpiece exhibition kind of act.

The drive from Khalifa International Stadium to Ahmad bin Ali Stadium was no more than 30 minutes in evening traffic, but it turned out to be lightyears of difference to what we had watched in the first game of the day.

Sometimes it’s the small things, things often taken for granted but missed terribly when they are gone.

The moment I took my seat in the stadium it felt different. A stadium almost full to capacity an hour before kick-off. Supporters singing, chanting, pointing at each other. More loud cheers and emotion when the players appeared for warm-ups.

Wales had waited 64 years for this day. The United States had not played a World Cup game since losing to Belgium in an enthralling knock-out game in 2014. This was an occasion that needed thousands of travelling supporters to bring their energy and singing voices, and bring it they did. Tonight was the night this World Cup finally came alive.

Both anthems were sung emphatically and for someone who has had the pleasure of listening to ‘Land of my Fathers’ at Welsh rugby games in Cardiff this was just as special. After 64 years, with just two of the squad of 1958 still alive, thousands from Wales remembered them and honoured the new team, making the trip to the Middle East to sing their hearts out and cheer on their heroes. It was supposed to feel like a big deal, and it did.

Even the Star-Spangled Banner, heard often by those of us from North America, sometimes at random games during a season in the NBA, NFL or NHL, for example, was bellowed out for the occasion. Somethings just hit different in international play, where anthems and sport are made for each other.

If the game sounded like a real match before the opening whistle, it reached even greater heights once it kicked off. The roar of excitement in reaction to something, claps of appreciation, chants, groans and whistles of discontent. It had it all. Football is never coming home to Qatar, but it certainly came home to the World Cup on this evening.

As expected, the United States were better than some thought. This was a night their best players showed up for large periods. When you have technical stars who play at the highest level like Christian Pulisic, and you have a midfield that has the intensity and intelligence of Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie and Yunus Musah you should always be comfortable on the ball. As Gregg Berhalter’s side put on a passing clinic, Wales chased shadows for 45 minutes and it was almost inevitable when Pulisic received the ball centrally in his office, delivered a precise pass to Tim Weah and the striker delivered with a tremendous one-touch finish with his right foot.

If ‘Land of my Fathers’ had brought a tear to my eye what happened next did the same. There it was. The roar of a goal screaming out like a beautiful choir; a noise so familiar, yet one that felt so far away here.

Wales improved when Kieffer Moore was introduced at halftime. Once again, another team at this World Cup benefited from going more direct and winning balls in the air. Ecuador, Netherlands in the second half, and now Wales. The 2018 World Cup was full of late headed goals and this one is already showing such tendencies. Wales continued to go direct. Ben Davies’ header was well saved by Matt Turner and Moore headed the subsequent corner over the bar.

McKennie, not 100 per cent fit, needed to be replaced and was missed. The momentum swung back to Wales. It felt like a moment would fall to Gareth Bale and when a ball came near him in the box his positioning was perfect to shield the ball from a sliding Walker Zimmerman and win a penalty. Bale, inevitably, slotted home a goal 64 years in the making. Once again, Wales had not been pretty, they had not been at their best, but they had Bale and had found a way to snatch a point and take two away from the team many think will go head-to-head with them for a crucial last 16 spot.

Both teams shared the spoils and the points but it was the sport and the World Cup that was the winner in this match. It was just past midnight into Tuesday here when the final whistle went, meaning five games will actually be played on that day. When we all wake up, attention will rightfully switch to Messi, Mexico and others but we should never forget the true ignitors of this World Cup were Wales and the United States, two teams who lifted the competition from its knees to stand tall and to look and sound like exactly what it is supposed to be again. 

Tomorrow’s Crystal Ball

Argentina 4, Saudi Arabia 0

Denmark 2, Tunisia 1

Mexico 1, Poland 0

France 1, Australia 1

To read the rest of Kristian Jack’s World Cup Diaries from Qatar, click here.