The scene where Max Verstappen’s Formula One car veered into the safety barriers at 200mph on Baku’s street circuit last Sunday is in full view from Wales’s base on the promenade and, up in their hotel rooms, players have been gearing up for the start of the European Championship by going full throttle on the F1 PlayStation game, inspired by the Netflix series Drive to Survive.
“We all ordered our own steering wheels and pedals,” says the defender Chris Mepham. “There are seven or eight of us involved. Jonny Williams did one race but was never to be seen again … he wasn’t great. It’s a good laugh and it’s something that puts a smile on our face.”
Beyond a ticket booth on a boulevard off Fountains Square and signage off Neftchilar Avenue, formerly Stalin Avenue, and on flyovers above busy roads, there is little evidence that a major tournament is in town. Galles are steadfastly preparing for their Group A opener against Switzerland at the Olympic Stadium on Saturday but, for now, Baku – a city awash with five-star hotels, plush rooftop bars and designer shops – screams Bvlgari rather than Bale.
Wales fans – a few hundred are expected to make the 3,000‑mile trip – are yet to arrive. The waterfront, where a gentle wind rolls off the Caspian Sea, is spotless but remnants of the F1 race on Sunday are dotted along the bay, from the finish line to concrete barricades, grid markings, and advertising hoardings featuring Verstappen and his Red Bull teammate Sergio Pérez. Every now and then a train whizzes beside a cacti garden towards the Maiden Tower, a Unesco world heritage site on the edge of the cobbled “Old City”.
Wales’s success at Euro 2016 was built on a healthy balance between work and play. On Tuesday the squad enjoyed a recovery session in the swimming pool and, while players such as the defender Ben Cabango have brought consoles to play Call of Duty, others have opted for table tennis or snooker. Tom Lockyer has been practising a few card tricks on teammates and Adam Davies, fresh from taking on the mantle of squad DJ from Chris Gunter, doubles up as the card shark. “I don’t know if he [Davies] is doing something with the cards, but in every game he seems to come out on top,” says Mepham. “Even the lads are starting to say: ‘Are you fixing the cards or something?’ It’s all a good laugh.”
The squad have already been confined to a strict bubble for three weeks, including a training camp in the Algarve, but are happy to amuse themselves for a while longer yet. “We’re going to be here for a long time – hopefully a very long time,” the midfielder Joe Morrell says, smiling. “So you have to recover right and get ready for the next day but also enjoy yourself because it’s not every year you’re at a European Championship. We have plenty of things to do.”
Wales have been preparing for matches against Switzerland and Turkey by training at 2pm local time – when temperatures are at their hottest, around 30C. Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey are among those familiar with warmer climes, while the 20-year-old midfielder Dylan Levitt spent four months on the Croatian coast last season, on loan at Istra 1961 from Manchester United.
“It’s good to get out here early and acclimatise a little bit because it is pretty hot,” says Morrell. “It’s going to be something we’re going to face in the two games we’ve got. The week in Portugal helped us prepare.”
Support staff at the Football Association of Wales have done their best to make their surroundings in Azerbaijan, which borders Iran, feel like home for the next nine days before they fly to Rome to play Italy in their final group game. As well as the essentials, goodies including baked beans and Welsh cakes were packed on to a lorry that made a six-day journey from Cardiff to Baku.
Either side of the gated entrance to their training base, the Tofiq Bahramov Stadium – named after the referee known to England supporters as “the Russian linesman” who awarded Geoff Hurst’s second goal in the 1966 World Cup final – are the flags of Turkey and Azerbaijan. Inside, the words of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, the Welsh national anthem, are written along the main stand. The players’ entrance, which has steps down into the tunnel, is bedecked in red.
The giant LED screen reads: Croeso Cymru, “Welcome Wales”. At the team hotel, there are mottos and messages across the 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 does feel very homely,” says Morrell. “It does feel very familiar. The FAW do a great job in making sure that is the case. One thing is for sure we won’t have any excuses when we cross that white line on Saturday because the preparation has been fantastic.”