Iran defeat shouldn't spoil Wales' adventure of a lifetime: day six at the World Cup

Wales vs Iran
(Image credit: Getty)

"Viva Gareth Bale!" came the chant from the Wales fans, as the metro train rumbled ever closer to the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium. Their fans were being outnumbered by those who'd made the short trip over the Arabian Gulf from Iran, but they were determined to make themselves heard.

If anything, it's not impossible that there might actually be more Welsh supporters in Qatar than England fans - they've certainly seemed more visible, anyway. Little wonder, given that this was their first World Cup since 1958 - no-one wanted to miss this, and they've been making the most of the trip. As the Bale era comes to an end, qualification for the next tournament remains an unknown.

They've encountered a country that has generally been friendly - those directing fans at the stadiums and various accommodation sites have tried their best to be welcoming, as have the locals. "The country has been waiting for this moment for 12 years," one told us on the metro.

Extremely disappointingly, a number of Wales fans had rainbow bucket hats removed by security before their opening match against the USA, but red, yellow and green hats in the Welsh colours were still everywhere to be seen outside of the stadium ahead of this fixture against Iran.

Wales Fans

(Image credit: Future)

Some of those Welsh fans had joined FFT on the journey to the game from our overnight accommodation at a portacabin village in Zafaran, next to the Lusail Formula 1 circuit north of Doha.

Public transport has been relatively well organised at this tournament - the metro serves most stadiums, and a large amount of free buses have also been laid on between venues and the various accommodation villages, plus the city centre.

FFT have sampled two different kinds of accommodation this week, in a city that was short of hotel rooms so had to come up with unconventional solutions - among them cruise ships, plus villages of apartments, tents, portacabins, even caravans.
Things seemed to run pretty smoothly at the apartment village in Al Janoub, to the south of Doha, where hundreds of staff were on hand 24/7 to serve the huge numbers of visitors.

At the portacabin village, things were more chaotic - FFT arrived to check in at 2am (the last game of the day finishes at around midnight local time), only to find a long queue of people trying to do the same. Rooms were still being cleaned by the on-site staff, and didn't become available until 3.30am for FFT - even later for some others, many of whom were sleep deprived and growing increasingly angry.

One solitary man stood behind the makeshift reception desk, fielding complaint after complaint, giving the impression that he was overwhelmed by it all - almost like he was realising that trying to make a temporary hotel out of hundreds of portacabins wasn't such a good idea after all. It wasn't the only evening when there were such late-night check-in queues.

"I even saw a guy still putting a sign up earlier," one American guest said. "Dude, it's day six."

When we finally got our room key and took a 10-second video of the queue on our phone, two staff bounded over out of nowhere, informed us that "Sir, filming isn't allowed in this area", and insisted we deleted it.

Once we got there, the portacabin itself was fine: a bed, wifi, a portable air conditioning unit, everything we needed, albeit not exactly luxury for £165 a night, with accommodation prices astonishingly high everywhere at this World Cup.

FFT have been here since Monday, taking in Wales versus the USA from the stands, when Rob Page's men toiled until Kieffer Moore came on as a half-time sub and changed everything.

That night, Bale equalled Chris Gunter as Wales' record appearance maker, although for the most part the 33-year-old had probably one of his most disappointing performances in the Dragons shirt.

"He's too slow - every time he's had the ball, he's given it away," one fan near us said during the second half. "He's f**ked, get him off," was the less measured view of another.

Thankfully, that didn't happen, and Bale was still on the pitch to win and then hammer home the penalty that gave Wales a vital point, and give them a decent chance of qualification, going into this game with Iran. Win against a side who lost 6-2 against England in their first game, and Page's side would potentially be on the brink of the last 16.

It became apparent quickly, though, that this wasn't quite the same Iran team that lost so handsomely to England.

Iran fans in Qatar

(Image credit: Future)

Then, boss Carlos Queiroz felt the ongoing political protests back home were distracting his team - particularly as they were constantly being asked to comment on it by the media. Queiroz even confronted a journalist who quizzed striker Mehdi Taremi about it in the pre-match press conference for this Wales game.

Iran players refused to sing their national anthem against England - this time, they did, albeit half-heartedly and seemingly reluctantly, while Iranian fans jeered in the stands, and another supporter from the Asian country was spotted on camera crying his eyes out at the sadness of the situation.

When the game started, Iran looked a whole lot more focused and determined than they did against England - surging forward whenever possible, then putting the ball in the net thanks to a free-flowing move finished by Ali Gholizadeh, only for VAR to rule it out for offside.

Wales had already had a chance of their own, when Moore's shot was saved, but their fans were busy wilting in the heat - they'd been placed in the one part of the stadium that was directly in the afternoon sun.

Sadly, the arena as a whole was a long way from full - at least a quarter of the 45,000-capacity venue looked empty at kick-off, the furthest from capacity of any of the matches we've been to so far at this World Cup, even if it seemed to fill up a reasonable amount during the game itself.

Iran's initial momentum subsided, and Wales largely had the better of the first half after that without threatening massively - going into the interval with 66 per cent possession.

At the start of the second half though, they had a huge let-off - the stadium erupting into an Iranian fervour after Sardar Azmoun raced clear and hit the right-hand post, then Gholizadeh fired against the left-hand post seconds later, before Wayne

Hennessey saved Azmoun's header from the rebound.
At Euro 2020, Wales drew their opening game against Switzerland then produced a superb incisive performance in victory over Turkey - that wasn't exactly happening here.

Again, Bale wasn't having the impact on the game that Wales might have hoped, not entirely used to starting twice in four days these days. Despite the Dragons having the better of possession, it was Iran who looked far more dynamic when they got the ball in forward areas.

Page soon switched to four at the back, bringing on Brennan Johnson and Dan James as wide men, but still Iran looked the more likely to break the deadlock, Hennessey making a fine save to deny Saeid Ezatolahi. Still, it was the Iranian fans making almost all the noise, as Wales fans watched on worried.

Joe Allen's arrival on the field after injury prompted a brief turnaround, as Ben Davies' effort was tipped over, but then came Hennessey's 86th-minute dismissal for charging off his line and felling Taremi - if a covering defender just about saved him from a red card for a professional foul, the high leg into the striker's face was enough to turn the initial yellow card into a red after a VAR check.

In a game Wales knew they might well need to win to progress through the group, suddenly they had to hold on with 10 men for 13 minutes - including the obligatory nine minutes of stoppage time - just to secure a draw.

They couldn't manage it: in the eighth minute added on, Rouzbeh Cheshmi fired past sub keeper Danny Ward to finally break the deadlock. Three minutes later, as the game still continued, Ramin Rezaeian added a second on the counter attack.

Joy was unconfined among the Iran fans all around the stadium, celebrating with a deafening noise. Wales fans stood in stunned silence, devastated at the result.
Wales' chances of qualification now rely on victory over England in their final group game and other results to go their way - it won't be easy, but they won't give up. 

Whatever happens, their supporters have had an experience that they will never forget for the rest of their lives.

"Viva Gareth Bale," they sung pre-match. If they're to find an unlikely way into the last 16, Bale might have to deliver something pretty special on Tuesday.

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