Fishlock: I can follow Bale’s lead with Wales

  • Jess Fishlock is NWSL’s top player and Wales’ most-capped woman

  • The midfielder, 35, is desperate to cap her illustrious career with a FIFA Women’s World Cup™

  • She tells us why this Welsh squad is “better equipped than ever” to qualify

She’s the reigning NWSL MVP and one of just a handful of players with UEFA Women’s Champions League winner’s medals from separate clubs.

She has been a league champion in four different countries, boasts a record number of caps and was even honoured at Buckingham Palace for her colossal contributions to football and the LGBT community.

Jess Fishlock has achieved everything she could ever wish for, right? ‘Wrong’ is the definitive answer, and Fishlock herself will be the first to tell you as much.

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - DECEMBER 20: Jess Fishlock with her OBE, presented to her by the Prince of Wales during an investiture ceremony on December 20, 2018 at Buckingham Palace, London.   (Photo by Kirsty O'Connor – WPA Pool/Getty Images)

For all these outstanding aforementioned achievements, and many more besides, this hugely successful 35-year-old cannot feel wholly satisfied. Contentment will only come, she told FIFA+, when she steps out with Wales on the biggest stage of all.

“I’m very grateful for the career I’ve had,” she explained, “but it would live with me forever if I wasn’t able to go to a major tournament with my country. I’ve given so much, all the girls in this team have, and we’ve all been chasing it for so long.

“Wales will qualify for a tournament soon, I’m sure of it. But if I was to end my career without being a part of getting us to one, it would be a massive regret.”

The best yet

Her itch will not be scratched at the upcoming UEFA Women’s EURO. A 15th successive qualifying failure put paid to hopes there, leaving Fishlock’s focus fixed firmly on Australia and New Zealand in 2023.

With Wales well positioned to claim a play-off berth, and buoyed by watching the nation’s men end a long FIFA World Cup™ wait of their own, Fishlock sees history beckoning.

“I think we’re pretty close,” said the midfielder, who plays her club football for Seattle outfit OL Reign. “We have massive games coming up in September against Slovenia and Greece (two and three points respectively behind Wales in a section from which France have already qualified). But we’re in a good spot right now and better equipped than ever.

“What’s really helped has been the wider growth in women’s football. The vast majority of our players now play full-time or semi-pro at the very least, and that experience of training every day, learning what it takes to be ‘elite’, really helps. As a group, we’re far better prepared physically, mentally and emotionally for international football. It’s by far the best Wales squad I’ve been involved in.

“The way we need to get to the World Cup is so difficult. But I believe we have a squad that’s made up along similar lines to the way the men’s squad is: strong defensively, good in attack and with a great base.

“The traits in the way we play are similar too, and we’re looking at the same route of getting to the World Cup through the play-offs. It’s just a case of, ‘Can we get over that line like they have?’ And I think we’re built for the kind of challenges that are coming our way.

“The men making it to Qatar has just given us even more inspiration. I really cannot emphasise enough how exciting that is for all of us, and how huge the impact will be from them making it there.”

Chasing the same dream

Gareth Bale was, as always, a talismanic figure in the Welsh men’s latest success story. And if you see parallels in the story of an ageing icon who’s broken national records, won all there is to win at club level, but was desperate to fill a World Cup-shaped hole in his stellar career, you’re not alone.

“I see myself very similar to Gareth in that we’re both getting older and are at the stage of looking at what we’re still playing for and what we still want to achieve,” said Fishlock. “And for both of us that has been the same thing: a World Cup with Wales.

“Gareth has been able to do that, which is sensational, and he fully deserves it. Now it’s down to us, and if you speak to the girls who’ve played for the national team for a long time, it’s what we want more than anything. It’s one of the major reasons we have for keeping going.”

Fishlock has an added incentive for adding a World Cup to her glittering CV. After all, while she and Bale have plenty in common, a significant difference is that the latter has become a household name largely on the back of his club exploits.

In women’s football, and despite the blossoming of domestic leagues across the world, that remains close to impossible. The result is that Fishlock and players like her – denied the spotlight major tournaments provide – find their profile invariably fails to reflect their talent.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 03:  Kim Little and Jessica Fishlock of City FC talk during the round 12 W-League match between Melbourne City FC and the Western Sydney Wanderers at C.B.Smith Reserve on January 3, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia.  (Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

“That’s true, and it’s not just me,” she said. “I say it about a lot of the Welsh girls, or players in other smaller nations, that their profile would be far higher if they were French, American, English or Spanish.

“We don’t get talked about enough, and the reason we don’t is that we’re Welsh. It was the same with players like Kim (Little, a fellow NWSL MVP whose international career with Scotland comprised a solitary major tournament). Kim’s one of the best in the world, always has been, and there was a time when she was the best bar none. But she’s never had the recognition she deserves from the wider world.

“I see it with our girls too and it’s frustrating because I know they deserve more. But I also know that none of us would change it. We love our countries, and going through these challenges just makes it all the more special when we do achieve something.”

Comeback queen

A vocal and passionate advocate for social justice – to the extent that she has admitted “looking into” a post-playing career in politics – Fishlock is also aware of the “huge” platform a World Cup would provide for furthering causes close to her heart.

Until September at least, however, the priority will be propelling the Reign up the NWSL standings and showing just why she was crowned the league’s top player.

“I much prefer team success and trophies, but whenever you get accolades like that it is really nice,” she said of her MVP award. “I’ve been here for almost ten years and have been pretty consistent. But to win that award in the year we had, coming off my ACL injury, was huge for me. It meant a lot.

“When you come back from an injury like that, you do wonder if you’re going to be the same player – there are always doubts lingering in your mind. So to come back the way I did and end the season as MVP, that was very, very special.”

Fishlock showed that, even in her mid-30s, she remains one of the foremost footballers of her generation. If she can help Wales realise her most cherished dream, the Women’s World Cup is sure to be enriched by the presence of this venerable veteran.

SEATTLE, WA - AUGUST 29: Megan Rapinoe #15, Lauren Barnes #3 and Jessica Fishlock #10 of the OL Reign celebrate together after a game between Portland Thorns FC and OL Reign at Lumen Field on August 29, 2021 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Jane Gershovich/ISI Photos/Getty Images)