Theo Davies-Lewis

A new era of Welsh football has begun

A new era of Welsh football has begun
Gareth Bale celebrates Wales's victory in the FIFA World Cup Qualifier (Getty)
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As Britain toasted seven decades of the Queen’s reign outside Buckingham Palace, the Welsh basked in their 1600-year survival. Dafydd Iwan, the republican nationalist folk singer, bellowed Yma O Hyd around the Cardiff City Stadium as Wales took on Ukraine in their World Cup qualifier. A simple title – We’re Still Here – makes you want to weep and, then, fight. 

What was once a marginal protest tune, composed at the height of Thatcherism after Wales rejected devolution in 1979, is now an apt anthem for spurring on Welsh footballers. Until recent years they were not a celebrated or well-known species but Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen have changed all that. A surprising ascent during Euro 2016 (when the country reached the semi-finals) created excitement for the future. What has been missing until now is a coveted spot at the World Cup.

Thanks to a deflected free-kick from Gareth Bale on Sunday night, 64 years of hurt will soon be over. Naturally, the Welsh feel slightly guilty to have beaten Ukraine to reach the tournament, although ruthlessness during ninety minutes is a common trait for Wales’s footballers.

Explaining Wales’s sporting phenomenon is not simply down to Bale’s left-foot. 'Yma O Hyd,' the defender Connor Roberts proudly announced last year, 'I listen to that every game. It just puts a little bit of fire in the belly and makes me want to run a bit more.' It is a sentiment reportedly shared among large parts of the Welsh squad. Patriotism in Wales is more wrapped up in football than it ever used to be. If you want to see Wales in its most raw, individual form football games are where to go.

Once it was rugby that provided an escape from Anglicisation and poverty for most of the twentieth century, helped by the glories of the 1970s. But now growing numbers of youngsters in Wales are choosing football over rugby as their sport of choice, spurring an interest in the national team.

The Red Wall, as Welsh football supporters are known, represents the changing mood best. Egged on by the Football Association for Wales (FAW) and Welsh-language broadcaster S4C they travel around Europe – and soon, Qatar – as radical ambassadors of their country. Their mantra, Independent Football Nation, resonates even with those who pay little attention to politics. It is an inclusive and diverse fanbase, bound tightly by sport and, of course, Welsh history and culture.

This sporting rebirth has bubbled over into a not-so-quiet revolution. Now, Wales is firmly on the European map; soon it will be on the global stage. When the team went to Sweden over six decades ago, Wales had few institutions to fall back on – no parliament and barely a capital city to call home. The growth of Welsh football has shown that a confident, diverse and – in footballing terms at least – independent country is again ready to take on the world’s best. And whatever happens in Qatar, Iwan’s prophetic message will still ring true: Ry'n ni yma o hyd.

Written byTheo Davies-Lewis

Theo Davies-Lewis is an associate director at FGS Global and a political commentator on Welsh affairs

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