Wales back at World Cup is 'more than sport', says leader

Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford said Sunday that his country's first World Cup appearance in 64 years will put the nation on the global map and was "more than sport".

The country of 3.2 million people has only qualified for the World Cup once before, in 1958, but led by former Real Madrid winger Gareth Bale they are finally back at football's top table.

Their opening match in Qatar is against the United States on Monday, followed by Group B games against Iran and neighbours England.

Drakeford, Wales's highest-ranking politician, told AFP in Doha that it represented "more than sport".

"It is part of demonstrating what it means to be a small nation, but a small nation that's able to be there on that global stage.

"The World Cup will be in five billion households around the globe and many, many of those will never even have heard of Wales.

"So it is a major opportunity to raise the profile of Wales for people to understand that in the United Kingdom there are four different nations, each with their own distinctive identity and history.

"That's an enormous opportunity."

Drakeford added that in a country with a proud sporting heritage, particularly in rugby, playing once more at the football World Cup "stands very tall and very proud in the sporting history of Wales".

Drakeford has faced criticism from some quarters back home for making the trip to Qatar because of concerns over the country's treatment of migrant workers, women and the LGBTQ community.

He said that freezing Qatar out would be counter-productive and that there had been "tangible progress here in recent times".

"If we are not prepared to recognise that, then the incentive for other countries to make that progress is diminished," he said.

"I think it's important to recognise change where change has happened, while at the same time, being prepared to explain where things would be different from our perspective."

The World Cup kicks off Sunday when the hosts play Ecuador.