DOHA, Qatar (AP)Ben Cabango thought back to playing with his brother Theo in their garden.
”Me and him just always used to get at it,” he said. ”Looking back now, it’s just good times.”
The stakes are vastly larger these days. Ben Cabango is a 22-year-old defender preparing for Wales’ first World Cup game in 64 years, against the United States on Monday. Theo is a 20-year-old winger getting ready to head to South Africa for Cardiff’s match against the Sharks in the United Rugby Championship.
”I think both of us have just pushed each other,” Ben said Saturday, ”because obviously you have a competitive nature when you’re both kids wanting to do better than one another.”
Ben played rugby and soccer until he was about 13, then chose to stick with soccer. His brother played soccer for a while and now hopes for a Wales national rugby team callup.
”Rugby basically chose him, I think, obviously, with his pace,” Ben said. ”He’s done well.”
Ben played in Swansea’s academy and started his professional career far from the limelight, with The New Saints in the Welsh league in 2018-19. He plays for Swansea in England’s second-tier League Championship and made the first of five international appearances for Wales at Finland in September 2020 as a substitute in second-half stoppage time.
Wales reached the World Cup quarterfinals in 1958, losing to Brazil 1-0 as Pele dribbled around Mel Charles and beat goalkeeper Jack Kelsey from short range in the 66th minute. The Dragons ranked as low as 117th in 2011 and didn’t reach another major tournament until qualifying for the 2016 European Championship. They beat Slovakia and Russia in the group stage around a loss to England, then defeated Northern Ireland and upset Belgium 3-1 before a semifinal loss to eventual champion Portugal.
Cabango remembered watching the victory over a star-filled Belgium team.
”I was in that Cardiff fan zone just celebrating with all my mates,” he said. ”We all just want that feeling again. It’s surreal to think about beating big teams like that, and we know we can do it.”
His parents and girlfriend are traveling Sunday to Qatar, where Wales is training near downtown Doha at the facility of the Al Sadd club. A slogan across the top of the interview background proclaims in Welsh: ”Gorau Chwarare Cyd Chwarae,” which translates to ”Team Play is the Best Play.” Players addressing the media face a sign that says ”Our Land. Our History, Our People.”
All but four of the players are based in Britain, so it is a bit jarring to acclimatize to the weather, which has temperatures in the mid-80s Fahrenheit (high-20s Celsius).
”If we win the first game, then confidence grows and, hopefully, it can take us a long way,” Cabango said.
Wales plays Iran on Friday, then closes the group stage against England on Nov. 29.
”We can’t wait for that game. I know we’re looking at America first, obviously,” Cabango said. ”There’s always a grudge between us and England whenever we play.”
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