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Welsh fans are ecstatic over the team's first World Cup match in more than 6 decades

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The U.S. men's team starts to campaign later today as part of the soccer World Cup that kicked off yesterday in Qatar. Their first opponent in the group stage will be the tiny country of Wales, one of the four nations that together form the United Kingdom. A Welsh team has not made it to the tournament in generations, and as Willem Marx reports, fans are more than a little excited.

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UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) We're going to Qatar. Tsamina mina way eh, eh, waka waka (ph)...

WILLEM MARX: When the Welsh men's soccer team qualified for the 2022 World Cup, fans across the small nation erupted in sometimes raucous celebrations. They had good reason to cheer. Their team's not taken part in a World Cup since 1958, when a goal from Brazilian superstar Pele knocked them out in a quarterfinal.

TIM HARTLEY: We've been looking forward as football fans to this for 64 years. We honestly never thought it would happen.

MARX: Author, broadcaster and Welsh mega fan Tim Hartley has supported the national soccer team his entire life.

HARTLEY: Even a year or so ago, I didn't think it was possible. But now all my dreams have come true. All those years I've spent following Wales to strange places, taking the family to Iceland for a friendly match, going to Armenia for a week because there was only one flight out and one flight back home, taking my son out of school to go to Azerbaijan. My friends thought I was mad. My colleagues thought I was mad. Who's laughing now? I'm off to Qatar to the World Cup with my team, Wales.

MARX: Hartley grew up in an era, the 1970s, when there was a world-class Welsh team but in a different sport - rugby. Today, it's soccer's turn in the spotlight. The man now responsible for the sport in Wales is Noel Mooney, and he, too, recognizes the historical significance for his country.

NOEL MOONEY: We are so excited here in Doha, Qatar, as we prepare for our first game against the USA in the World Cup finals. It's our first tournament in 64 years, so we're super excited. And it's great to be playing at the very top level, the top table of world football.

MARX: The World Cup generates not just excitement but cash, too. Qualification has earned Mooney's organization several million dollars in extra revenue, money it's already pumping into the game back home to build new facilities and strengthen grassroots teams.

MOONEY: We're absolutely delighted that while our elite players are going out to the world stage, it's inspiring the young people of Wales to take up the game and to enjoy our beautiful sport.

MARX: And beyond the game itself, he says the tournament's arrival has coincided with a growing recognition of Wales' own unique identity.

MOONEY: There's been a renaissance in the Welsh language. There's been a renaissance in the Welsh culture and identity. And getting that message out there has been hugely supported by the Welsh government. We've got this concept called Team Cymru, Team Wales, which is about all of the activations we have both back in Wales, right across the country, but also internationally.

MARX: Wales faces the U.S., then Iran and England in their group. Just a single win and a draw could be enough for them to continue in the contest.

KIERAN JONES: When they're struggling through a game and we get on their back, start cheering them, it makes a difference.

MARX: Kieran Jones helps run the Welsh Football Supporters' Association.

JONES: Lots of countries, when you say Wales, they say, oh, is that part of England? And having England in our group has actually made it even more apparent that Wales isn't a country on its own recognition. It couldn't have been better in a way for identity.

MARX: So watch out, Team USA, for Wales' spirited supporters, especially when they sing the country's national anthem, says mega fan Tim Hartley.

HARTLEY: We've got a spirit behind us. They call it Hoyle. It just means a good feeling in Wales, a great feeling behind us, and that the red dragon's breathing and who knows what we can do?

MARX: For NPR News, I'm Willem Marx.

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UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in Welsh). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Willem Marx