Who: England vs Wales, Group B
Where: Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium
When: Tuesday, November 29, 10pm local (19:00 GMT)
FIFA rankings: England (5), Wales (19)
If you think the USA vs Iran game will be politically charged, you just wait for this one — which kicks off at the same time as the match between the geopolitical rivals.
The only two non-autonomous countries in this World Cup are neighbours — of the kind where the seat of power of one resides in the other. Since England’s King Edward invaded and colonised Wales in 1282, constructing a “Ring of Iron” of castles to house his occupying army and to project power and control over the Indigenous population, there have been uprisings and rebellions in Wales to wrestle control and return sovereignty to the Welsh.
It is not all ancient history, either. In the 1960s, a valley of Welsh-speaking villages in North Wales was chosen to be flooded, building a reservoir to supply drinking water, not to the people of Wales but to the city of Liverpool.
Musician Dafydd Iwan, one of the founders of Welsh pro-independence party Plaid Cymru, was among dozens of people jailed in the 1970s for Welsh-language activism. Ten years later, he composed Yma o Hyd, a rebel song describing the efforts to destroy Welsh national identity and its language. Its title translates as “We’re still here”, and it now rings out from the terraces when Wales take to the field. The Welsh language was only officially recognised by Westminster’s Parliament in 1993.
This is the first World Cup for which Wales have qualified since 1958. The Welsh football team play with a dragon on their chest. The Welsh rugby team play with the symbol of the prince of Wales on theirs. The title of “prince of Wales”, by the way, is not hereditary, but appointed by the British monarch, ever since Owain Glyndwr, the last Welsh prince of Wales, led a 15-year rebellion against the British monarchy and established an independent parliament for Wales in 1404.
Following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, King Charles appointed his son William to the role he formerly held. William, Prince of Wales, has announced that, as president of the English Football Association, he will be supporting England at the World Cup. It is no coincidence that the success of the national football team since Euro 2016 — where Wales reached the semi-finals — has coincided with a resurgence in independence sentiment.
But this golden generation, featuring superstar Gareth Bale alongside Joe Allen and Aaron Ramsey, is coming towards the inevitable twilight of their careers. Bale and Ramsey struggle to get game time in the warm climes of Los Angeles and Nice, respectively. Allen is only just back from injury.
The opening draw with the USA, in which Wales were reliant on a Bale penalty, and the loss to Iran, in which a lack of discipline left them exposed defensively, revealed a team scrabbling for composure and cohesion. To qualify now, Wales need to beat England, and hope the USA draw with Iran.
England, meanwhile, are flying high: Euro 2020 finalists, ranked fifth in the world, and considered a serious contender for the title in Qatar. They have practically qualified for the Round of 16 already — only a four-goal margin of defeat at Welsh hands would stop them.
Yet they too have not been as imperious as some had expected. A draw with the USA was not what the tabloids back home were crying out for. But English manager Gareth Southgate — born in Watford, where Welsh manager Robert Page captained the football team in the 1990s — knows that the World Cup is a long tournament and is not won in the group stage.
Headlines howl at the lack of Phil Foden on the pitch, but Southgate knows that he does not need the mercurial Manchester City midfielder to get out of Group B. Foden will make an appearance exactly when England need him.
Harry Kane’s leadership on and off the field is well-known. And he’s not alone. Marcus Rashford, whose campaign for free school meals forced a government U-turn to feed nearly two million children in need, also commands respect. They lead an England attack that includes Jack Grealish, Bukayo Saka and Raheem Sterling — all prodigious talents.
England should win this game; they want that second star on their shirt. For Wales, this World Cup is less about pretensions of grandeur and more about the pride that comes from taking one’s rightful place among a community of nations after so long. And when they come home — whenever that is — the schoolchildren will still be singing Yma o Hyd, “We’re still here”.