Friday 12 November 2021, 10:00

James: Bale is unbelievable for Wales on and off the pitch

  • Daniel James has been a go-to player for Wales in FIFA World Cup qualifying

  • The electrifying winger assesses their chances of reaching Qatar 2022

  • He hails Gareth Bale, Kevin De Bruyne, Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford and Raphinha

Marbella, party paradise, is a haven for young Brits. Nobody was celebrating harder there than an 18-year-old Welshman on a summer’s day in 2016. He wasn’t, however, dancing to the beats of Martin Garrix, David Guetta, Tiesto or Armin van Buuren from one of the Costa Del Sol hotspot’s super clubs. He was, instead, rocking to the tune blasted out by Ben Davies, Aaron Ramsey, Gareth Bale and Co from the Stade Pierre-Mauroy. They had inspired Wales to a continent-shaking 3-1 win over Belgium and a place in the UEFA EURO semi-finals. The Dragons will collide with the Red Devils again on Tuesday and will, irrespective of their result against Belarus three days earlier, require something to make sure of their place in the European playoffs for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ (they could qualify automatically should Estonia win in Brussels).

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The aforementioned Welshman will not, nevertheless, be watching Davies, Ramsey and Bale in action this time around. He will be, by contrast, playing alongside them. Daniel James hurtled from a Swansea City academy player to a Wales and Manchester United winger at breakneck pace – something he emblematizes. He was, indeed, clocked sprinting at 33.5 km/h against Turkey – one of the fastest times at UEFA EURO 2020, eclipsing the top speeds of Kylian Mbappe, Leroy Sane, Adama Traore and Kyle Walker. Seven weeks after becoming a father, and two days after his 24th birthday, James chats to FIFA about becoming a go-to player for Wales, their decisive upcoming games, his World Cup memories, Gareth Bale, Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford and Raphinha. Congratulations on becoming a father. How have the first seven weeks been? Daniel James: Thank you. They’ve been good. A little bit different but I’m really enjoying it. For me and the missus it was a proud moment and these last seven weeks have just flown by. You’ve played against Belarus twice. What do you think of them and how do you see the game playing out? You can never underestimate these teams. They’re bottom of the group at the minute, but they don’t want to finish there. Every game they’ve played they’ve always given people a challenge. They gave us a real challenge when we were away, but we came back and won. In this game, we don’t want to fall behind, we want to be on the front foot. It’s not going to be easy but it’s a must-win game for us. This group could come down to goal difference. Is the objective solely to get three points, or if you’re one-goal up will you be pushing for more? I think it’s always the target to get the three points, and if we go pushing early they could hit us. But I think from the first minute we want to be positive, especially having home advantage. If the game plays out that we can push for more, then we’ll absolutely try to, but ultimately we just want to get the three points. We know it’s not going to be an easy game.

Wales have won two of their last three against Belgium and lost only once in their last five. How confident will you be going into a game against them? They’re such a great team. We obviously had the one away where we scored that great goal, then we got beat. We know they’re a great team, we respect them, but we can’t respect them too much. There’s nothing to be afraid of. We have to play our game. I’ve seen us beat them to reach the semi-finals of the EUROs in 2016. We know what they’ve got, we’ll try and deal as best we can, but we won’t be afraid. We’ll go into the game with full confidence. Wales famously stunned Belgium 3-1 in the EURO 2016 quarter-finals. Where were you watching that game and what was the atmosphere like? I was on holiday at the time in Marbella. There were a good few fans in the pub, but I was the only Welsh one. It was brilliant to watch. There’s no way I expected it at that time, but it was absolutely brilliant. To go on and score that last-minute goal as well – Vokesy scored – it was absolutely brilliant. I was watching it wanting to play at the next one.

What do you think of Kevin De Bruyne? (laughs) What can you say about him? He’s unbelievable, one of the best players in the world. He can do anything. He can play anywhere. He’s absolutely brilliant. He can pick a pass, he can score, he drags players out of position. He’s very hard to mark. I know that. A lot of times when I’ve played against him he’s been the ultimate, always pulling the strings. He’s been doing it for a long time in the Premier League. He’s someone I really respect as a player. Wales’ own superstar is set to win his 100th cap. What do you think of Gareth Bale as a player? Gareth has had an unbelievable career. It’s a privilege to play with him on the same team. It’s funny to think he started as a left-back really, a wing-back. The game that always comes to mind was that Inter Milan game when he tore Maicon apart. Ever since then he’s just improved. He deservedly got a move to Real Madrid and he hasn’t let anyone down – four Champions League, lots of other trophies. He’s been absolutely unbelievable for them. And he’s been unbelievable for us and continues to be – on and off the pitch. He brings so much to the squad. He’s great with us players. He’s just so nice. He always gives his words of wisdom, he’s a bit of a captain as well. He’s great before the game. He just loves playing for Wales. It’s great for the boys.

You scored the only goal of the game with a superb header against the Czechs in Cardiff, got the equaliser in Prague. Do you enjoy carrying the pressure of being a man for the big occasion? Yeah. I enjoy pressure, I thrive off it. I’m happy to take it. Just how good can Daniel James become? I’ve not reached my potential yet. I’m getting a lot more game time now and I’ve obviously got my own goals. I’ve got so much more I can improve on, so much more to give. Hopefully I’ll show that in the coming years.

What would it mean to Wales to qualify for their first World Cup since 1958? To qualify for the EUROs again was such a big achievement, but to qualify for the World Cup would be something else. There are not many teams – 13 going from Europe – and to be among them teams would be an absolute privilege. We definitely have the team, the players and the spirit to make it. It’s down to us. What are your favourite memories from watching World Cups? The South Africa one always stands out. It was such a big tournament. The songs they had, the way they did the opening ceremony, it was just extra special. I remember South Africa played the first game and [Siphiwe] Tshabalala scored – I’ll always remember that amazing goal. I was a kid at the time. I never thought I’d be involved in a campaign to qualify for one, but here I am. To actually qualify for one would be unbelievable for me and also for the whole country.

You spent two seasons at Manchester United. Which player impressed you most at the club? I could name so many who impressed me as players and professionals. The two who most come to mind are Bruno [Fernandes] and Marcus [Rashford]. The way Bruno came from Portugal and settled straight in at United… the assists, the goals. I think in his first season he beat the most goals and assists contributions in a season for a midfielder. Unbelievable. He takes that pressure on and he works so hard. The other one is Marcus. He’s an absolutely unbelievable player. To put in the performances he has, when he’s been carrying injuries as well… just full respect to him. He takes the pressure on, he always performs. And it’s not just on the pitch where he impresses me but off the pitch too. He fully deserved his MBE.

You’ve played with so many top players, but how good is Raphinha? He’ a magician. He’s always been a great player – I played against him at United and he was always great – but he’s improved so much. He fully deserved his Brazilian call-up and I think since he got it, he’s pushed on even more, he’s even more confident. He can do absolutely anything on the pitch. It’s great playing with him.