Fans ‘not here for drink’, Drakeford says ahead of World Cup opener for Wales

Fans are “not here for drink”, Mark Drakeford has said while urging World Cup attendees to rally behind the Wales team ahead of the country’s first match against the US.

The First Minister visited Doha’s Corniche on Sunday, where a giant model of a bucket hat has been placed near the city’s Museum of Islamic Art.

The bucket hat was described by Mr Drakeford as the “informal uniform” of Wales football fans which has grown in popularity and now represents “the team’s incredible progress in the game and its fans’ passion and spirit”.

The event was the first to be held by the Welsh Government since his arrival in the Gulf State on Saturday, kicking off a trip Mr Drakeford has called a “special opportunity to promote Wales on the world stage”.

Responding to the complaints made by some supporters about the suitability of their accommodation and the backlash against the last-minute rule changes around alcohol availability in the football stadiums and other fan areas, Mr Drakeford told PA news agency: “I think you should make the most of what is here, the fans are here for football, not for drink.

FIFA World Cup 2022
Wales First Minister Mark Drakeford in front of a giant bucket hat on the Corniche in Doha, Qatar (Bronwyn Weatherby/PA)

“I am sure that there will be people here who will be very keen to make sure they have the best possible time.”

Mr Drakeford reiterated his promise to raise issues around human rights, in particular the concerns around the treatment of LGBTQ+ people.

He said he felt “immensely proud” of the Football Association of Wales’s (FAW) decision to defy Fifa and have captain Gareth Bale wear the One Love armband during their matches.

Harry Kane, England captain, will also be wearing the armband which promotes LGBTQ+ rights in the upcoming game against Iran, despite Fifa asking players to sport a different armband with the message #FootballUnitesTheWorld.

Same-sex relationships are outlawed in Qatar and while the host nation and Fifa organisers have repeated that “everyone is welcome”, it is the reason many fans from around the world have not travelled to the World Cup or are boycotting the competition.

Mr Drakeford said: “You simply can’t divorce sport from the context within which it is played, and I’m not surprised at all because if you know the Welsh players and if you know the Welsh football association, then you know the values that matter to them.”

Last week Mr Drakeford said it had been a “difficult” decision to attend the World Cup, the first the nation has qualified for in 64 years, but said he believed it was important the country was represented by its Government during the tournament.

Asked in Doha if he still felt it was the right decision, he said: “On the one hand, being here really brings home to you the importance of Wales being at this tournament – as you drive through the capital city and see the Welsh flag flying alongside the flags of all the other nations – it really is a very special opportunity to promote Wales on the world stage.

“Of course there are business opportunities for people from all around the world and it is a chance to promote those economic opportunities for Wales, for example I’ll be meeting with the American ambassador, the US is our single biggest investor in Wales.

First Minister Mark Drakeford speaks to Welsh players
First Minister Mark Drakeford (centre) speaks to Welsh players during a training session (Jonathan Brady/PA)

“But the time that I will spend here, the rest of today through tomorrow, are also a series of opportunities to talk about the things that matter to us as an open, inclusive nation.”

An estimated £2 million has been spent on promoting Wales in Qatar, an investment that Mr Drakeford has insisted could reap far greater returns for the nation.

Replicas of the bucket hat art installations have been placed in the centre of Cardiff and Swansea.

The version in Doha has on it the Wales team’s motto “Gorau Chwarae, Cyd Chwarae”, meaning “the best play is team play”, while defender Ben Davies became the first person in history to speak in Welsh only during a World Cup press conference on Saturday.

Mr Drakeford will greet the Wales players at a training session on Sunday afternoon at Al Saad Sports Club.

With Mr Drakeford on the trip are Wales’ ambassadors, former hurdling athlete Colin Jackson and Wales football player Jess Fishlock, both of which are members of the LGBTQ+ community.

Jackson told PA: “When people think of Wales they wouldn’t necessarily see me, but the fact I’m here and I’ve been chosen to represent my country here shows how positively progressive we are.

Welsh ambassadors Jess Fishlock and Colin Jackson at the giant bucket hat sculpture in Doha, Qatar.
Welsh ambassadors Jess Fishlock and Colin Jackson at the giant bucket hat sculpture in Doha (PA)

“Wales as a country allows anybody from anywhere to be empowered and we’re here to drive that message across the world.

“The first time I came to Qatar was in 1987 and, since then, as we have the Diamond League here every year I’ve witnessed a huge change in the country.

“So, it wasn’t a difficult decision for me to come out here in that sense, I wasn’t worried about safety, it wasn’t on my mind at all.”

FAW head Noel Mooney told journalists the Wales team would continue to play a role in tackling issues in the country beyond the World Cup and said a delegation would return in the new year.

Fifa President Gianni Infantino on Saturday was criticised for a speech he delivered in which he accused other nations of “hypocrisy” over human rights concerns.

UK Health Secretary Steve Barclay declined to comment on Mr Infantino’s statements but told Sky News it was a “major international event and I think all of us are excited”.

More than 2,500 Wales fans and between 3,000 and 4,000 England fans are expected to descend on Doha for Monday’s opening matches.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak posted a video of himself circling fixtures on a World Cup wallchart, tweeting “do us proud” followed by England and Wales flag emojis.