Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy? They were the unmistakable lyrics a dozen or so Wales supporters sang as they hopped off a metro escalator and descended on a stadium adjacent to a 500,000 square metre shopping mall fit with a five-star hotel. A few days after the Brazil legend Cafu wished Wales good luck wearing a tricolour bucket hat now synonymous with the nation, they are the kind of words that could have reasonably been running through Gareth Bale’s mind after his penalty snatched a late draw on their first appearance at the World Cup finals since 1958.
Bale is the true prince of Wales and despite spending almost the entire match on the margins he provided another one of those big‑game moments to file with the rest of them. His catalogue this year is already turning into quite the collection: two stunning goals against Austria in March, a match-winning free‑kick against Ukraine to secure their place at these finals, and, a fortnight ago, an extra-time header to help Los Angeles FC en route to lifting the Major League Soccer Cup.
And now this, an unerring spot‑kick, having drawn a clumsy foul from the USA defender Walker Zimmerman, to cancel out Timothy Weah’s incisive opener and get Wales off the mark. It was an occasion awash with emotions for everyone involved, particularly Neco Williams, whose grandfather died on Monday. “To go from crying all day to start in a World Cup game was extremely tough,” Williams said.
This was a game that seemed to take on an extra dose of significance after England’s rout of Iran, with Gareth Southgate’s side primed to qualify from Group B, and for so long it seemed Wales would be out of the equation.
From a Wales perspective, the dynamic of this game shifted not because of Bale, who completed a full game for the first time since September, but because of the half‑time arrival of Kieffer Moore, a surprise omission from Rob Page’s starting lineup.
With Moore and then the raw Brennan Johnson arriving from the bench, Wales turned up the heat and when Bale stuck out a leg to trap Aaron Ramsey’s pass in the box, he invited a challenge that allowed him to equalise. Bale’s rusty showing until that point suddenly paled into insignificance.
“Irrespective of what he does at club level, he manages to pull the jersey on for Wales and give performances that surprise people,” said Page, the Wales manager.
“I said to him on about 75 minutes: ‘Are you OK to carry on?’ and he went: ‘Yeah, I’m fine.’ And at the end of the game he said: ‘That’s why I stayed on.’ “He looks after himself, he manages himself through games. If he’d have gone full-tilt from the first whistle, he probably wouldn’t have lasted until half time. But he’s very experienced and clever at managing his body.”
Bale’s nous ultimately gave Wales a route back into a game that looked lost until Moore’s introduction at half time, when Page asked his players to be braver. A rethink seemed inevitable given Wales’s passive approach in the first half and it was no surprise that Page turned to Moore, the only bona fide No 9 in the Wales squad. He quickly got to work.
Ben Davies’s diving header forced Matt Turner into a sprawling save soon after the hour and from the subsequent corner Moore glanced a free header wide at the front post. USA never looked like doubling their advantage after the interval.
“At this level, goals are difficult,” their head coach, Gregg Berhalter, said. With a smile he added: “Unless you’re England, goals are pretty difficult.”
At the outset there was unfiltered enthusiasm at Wales taking the world stage for the first time in 64 years. They had to survive an early scare when Wayne Hennessey instinctively repelled Joe Rodon’s header to spare the defender the embarrassment of scoring an own goal after Weah crossed from the right, and seconds later USA made tracks down the left, resulting in Josh Sargent heading against a post.
Wales were on the back foot and conceded when Christian Pulisic scurried upfield after latching on to Sargent’s cute layoff just past halfway. The Chelsea forward made light work of eluding three Wales shirts before slipping in Weah, who calmly stroked the ball past Hennessey.
Before leading Wales out of the tunnel Bale chewed on some gum, licked his lips and took a swig of water. Before his penalty, a couple of deep breaths and then a left-footed blast into the top corner.
For the fans, it was a night when the little things were always going to stir something far bigger: from the starting lineup being read aloud half‑hour before kick-off – Bale’s name predictably got the biggest cheer – to the mere sight of the pre‑match pyrotechnics fizzing beside an oversized World Cup trophy occupying the centre circle.
Connor Roberts could not stop smiling during a typically moving Welsh national anthem, at the end of which every Wales player swivelled to applaud the almost 3,000-strong Red Wall, who proudly displayed flags advertising Brecon, Flint Town FC and Wrexham. “It was 64 years but worth the wait,” Page said. “To see the Red Wall celebrating was just incredible.”
This point leaves things delicately poised before Wales face Iran and England take on USA on Friday. “It was always going to be a tough game against England,” Berhalter said. “I don’t think it was ever going to change based on what happened [against Wales]. A point in the first game isn’t the end of the world.”
If Pulisic was bright for USA, Wales’s go-to man was rather muted – until being clattered inside the box by Zimmerman. From the spot Bale made no mistake and deep into nine minutes of added time Bale even sensed an improbable winner but was fouled when winding up to shoot from halfway after Turner raced out of his goal. “He’s never let us down, has he?” Page said.