Monday, August 2

Bale makes Baku: Wales are a long way from home as Euro 2020 warm-up progresses | Welsh

TThe scene where Max Verstappen’s Formula One car veered towards the safety barriers at 200 mph on the Baku street circuit last weekend is on view from the Wales base on the seafront and, in their hotel rooms, the players have been preparing for the start of the European competition. Championship by fully accelerating the F1 game for PlayStation, inspired by the Netflix series Drive to Survive.

“We all ask for our own steering wheels and pedals,” says defender Chris Mepham. “There are seven or eight of us involved. Jonny Williams had a run but was never seen again … it wasn’t great. It’s a good laugh and it’s something that makes us smile. “

Beyond a ticket booth on a boulevard across from Fountains Square and the signage for Neftchilar Avenue, formerly Stalin Avenue, and on flyovers over heavily trafficked roads, there is little evidence of a major tournament in town. Wales are firmly gearing up for their first Group A match against Switzerland at the Olympic Stadium on Saturday, but for now, Baku, a city awash in five-star hotels, luxurious rooftop bars and designer shops, shouts Bvlgari in Bale’s place.

Wales fans (a few hundred are expected to make the 3,000-mile journey) have yet to arrive. The promenade, where a gentle wind blows from the Caspian Sea, is immaculate, but the remains of Sunday’s F1 race are dotted along the bay, from the finish line to the concrete barricades, the marks of the grid and billboards featuring Verstappen and his teammate Red Bull. Sergio Pérez. Every now and then, a train buzzes past a cactus garden towards the Maiden’s Tower, a Unesco world heritage site on the edge of the cobbled “Old Town”.

Wales’ success at Euro 2016 was built on a healthy balance between work and play. On Tuesday the squad enjoyed a recovery session in the pool and, while players like defender Ben Cabango have brought consoles to play Call of Duty, others have opted for table tennis or snooker. Tom Lockyer has been practicing some card tricks with his teammates and Adam Davies, new to taking on the role of DJ for Chris Gunter’s squad, doubles as the card shark. “I don’t know if he [Davies] he’s doing something with the cards, but in every game he seems to be on top, ”says Mepham. “Even the guys are starting to say, ‘Are you fixing the cards or something?’ It’s all a good laugh. “

A sign says 'Welcome to Wales' as Gareth Bales and the train squad.
A sign says ‘Welcome to Wales’ as Gareth Bales and the train squad. Photograph: Dan Mullan / Getty Images

The team has already been confined to a strict bubble for three weeks, including a training camp in the Algarve, but is happy to have a little more fun. “We’re going to be here for a long time, hopefully a long time,” says midfielder Joe Morrell, smiling. “So you have to recover well and prepare for the next day, but also have fun because not every year you are in an important European Championship. We have many things to do. “

Wales have been preparing for the games against Switzerland and Turkey by training at 2pm local time, when temperatures are at their highest, around 30 ° C. Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey are familiar with warmer climates, while the midfielder 20-year-old Dylan Levitt spent four months on the Croatian coast last season, on loan at Istra in 1961 from Manchester United. “It’s good to get out early and acclimatize a bit because it’s quite hot,” says Morrell. “It is going to be something that we will face in the two games that we have. The week in Portugal helped us prepare ”.

The Welsh Football Association support staff have done their best to make their environment in Azerbaijan, which borders Iran, feel at home for the next nine days before flying to Rome to play Italy in their last group stage match. In addition to the essentials, goodies, such as baked beans and Welsh cakes, were packed into a truck that made a six-day trip from Cardiff to Baku.

On either side of the entrance gate to their training base, the Tofiq Bahramov Stadium, named after the referee known to England fans as “the Russian linesman” who conceded Geoff Hurst’s second goal in the final. from the 1966 World Cup, there are the flags of Turkey and Azerbaijan. . Inside, the words of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, the national anthem, are written across the main rostrum. The players’ entrance, which has steps leading to the tunnel, is adorned in red.

The giant LED screen says: Croeso Cymru, “Welcome Wales”. In the team hotel, there are slogans and messages on all four floors they have access to, including the words Gorau Chwarae Cyd Chwarae – “the best play is team play” – on the mirrors of the players’ rooms. “It feels very homey,” says Morrell. “It feels very familiar. The FAW does a great job of making sure that is the case. One thing is for sure that we will have no excuses when we cross that white line on Saturday because the preparation has been fantastic.

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