When the Wales men’s team line up this evening for what will be a stirring rendition of Hen Wlad fy Nhadau at their World Cup opener, each player will know that he carries the hopes and dreams of a footballing nation. But more than that, he will know he has already helped make dreams come true.
Ending a 64-year wait for World Cup qualification makes this a Welsh team of history makers. Yes, the march to the semi-finals of Euro 2016 still looms large in the memory of all Wales fans, but it is respect and gratitude, rather than a huge sense of expectation, that I and many other fans will be feeling tonight.
Wales fans know all about footballing dreams – and nightmares. As a child, I felt the disappointment of the team missing out on España ’82, mercifully unaware of how often the feeling would return. Nevertheless, by then I was obsessed with the World Cup, compiling scrapbooks about the players in each team and facts about the countries involved.
I already had some sense that this was bigger than football alone. Looking back, the tournament was a rare break from the often parochial concerns of eighties television and struck a chord with a young football-mad boy with family on three continents. Now, finally, I have the chance to indulge my passion for the World Cup and Welsh football at the same time. I’ll be among hundreds at the London Welsh Centre watching Wales (population 3.1 million) take on the US (population 331 million).
Still, I have mixed feelings about this tournament, as will a lot of people. Many have raised concerns for LGBTQ+ fans wishing to travel to Qatar for the tournament, given the country’s draconian laws banning homosexuality and the recent homophobic comments from a Qatari ambassador for the World Cup. I’ve seen far less written about the safety of gay players, however; perhaps this betrays the broader homophobia within the men’s game, which is still far from an environment where players can safely be out. Many of the 22 Fifa executive committee members who awarded consecutive World Cups to Russia and Qatar have since been fined, suspended, banned or indicted. The Guardian has reported that there have been 6,500 migrant worker deaths in Qatar since that decision. The world governing body grows ever further out of touch with fans and players.
Politics is not new to the World Cup. Wales’s 1958 qualification came about only because Egypt and and several other countries had either withdrawn or refused to play Israel, citing the latter’s invasion of Egypt in 1956. Wales had no such qualms – perhaps because the UK had been part of the invasion.
Like the current squad, the one in 1958 was managed by a man from the valleys with a global superstar as its talisman. But the tournament was a very different affair, with half as many teams competing and minimal media coverage back home. On returning home to Swansea, defender Mel Charles was asked if he’d been away on his holidays.
In contrast, 2022 qualification is shaping up to be a cultural moment for Wales. The camaraderie among the players and the close bond to the Red Wall, as the fans on the stands are known, has been building for well over a decade now, helped no doubt by an unprecedented period of success on the pitch, but also by the Football Association of Wales, which often feels like an extension of the fanbase. Frequent references to Cymru indicate a newfound pride taken in Cymraeg. Bucket hats, vintage shirts, Zombie Nation, Yma O Hyd; Welsh football fandom these days comes with its own look and its own sound.
Indeed, the FAW video that accompanies Dafydd Iwan’s remastered protest song, drives home just how much Wales has changed in those intervening 64 years. Among the football clips are scenes of the 1965 flooding of Capel Celyn, the 1966 Aberfan disaster, the miners’ strike of 1984-5, the 1997 devolution referendum and the Cymdeithas yr Iaith protests that led to Welsh finally being recognised as an official language in 2011.
If the events included in the video offer little to acknowledge the long presence of Black people and racial minorities in Wales, the same cannot be said of Gŵyl Cymru, a 10-day festival that aims to strengthen the links between sports and the arts and build a cultural legacy for the World Cup. Organised by the FAW in partnership with Arts Council Wales, Gŵyl Cymru was launched with a short film featuring Hanan Issa, the new national poet Wales, performing The Crowd Gathers, alongside Grug Muse, who translated the poem into Welsh. Issa, the first Muslim to be made national poet, writes in English and uses Welsh and Arabic phrases in the poem.
Festival highlights include rappers Lemfreck and Mace the Great, performing in New York before the Cymru v USA game, comedians Priya Hall and Leila Navabi and new artwork from Yusuf Ismail and Shawqi Hasson of Unify, whose murals are already modern landmarks in Cardiff. There will also be events featuring the Rainbow Wall, FAW’s group for LGBTQ+ supporters and allies.
Fifa should take note. It could learn much from the FAW about what the modern game could look like.