November 29, 2022   5 mins

I watched Wales play the USA in a packed pub in Cardiff last Monday. When the anthem began, everyone stood up and belted it out as loud as they could. No one was self-conscious; no one was embarrassed. Unlike in England, in Wales patriotism is not associated with the Right. It’s not linked with deference to a royal, a hatred of foreigners, or the values of the past. In Wales, patriotism is viewed as progressive and modern. Thus while our singing of the anthem was not particularly tuneful, it was fervent, passionate and deeply felt. Wales was playing its first World Cup match for 64 years and it was a moment to savour, to remember, to share.

Every football fan grew up watching the World Cup, but for most in Wales it was always someone else’s party. We’d come to expect disappointment. It wouldn’t have been so bad had we not had to watch the world’s biggest sporting competition through a UK-media that assumed every viewer was an England fan. To make things worse, we were always subject to a barrage of “Come on England” advertising in shops and on television. During the 1998 tournament, I wrote to my local supermarket in Cardiff to complain it was full of England flags. They replied, with more than a touch of sarcasm, that they’d get behind Wales if we ever qualified. Well, now we have — and tonight are taking on the English team we were tacitly expected to support.

The current buzz around football in Wales represents more than just matters on the field. Unlike other Welsh national institutions, the Football Association of Wales (FAW) has been unashamedly political in recent years. Players have received lessons on Welsh history and official social media has marked important anniversaries. The official Welsh World Cup song is “Yma o Hyd”, an Eighties anthem that proudly declares that the Welsh are still here, “despite everyone and everything”, despite Thatcher and her “crew”. It was written and sung by Dafydd Iwan, a former president of the Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru, who was imprisoned several times during the Sixties and Seventies civil disobedience campaign for the Welsh-language rights. The FAW’s video for the song includes footage of those protests, and iconic moments from Welsh history such as the 1984-5 miners’ strike and the flooding of the Tryweryn valley in the Sixties to build a reservoir for Liverpool. And the interweaving of historical archive with contemporary scenes of flag-waving fans resembles a video by the campaign for Welsh independence. Whereas once this would have been controversial, it has been embraced by most fans regardless of their politics and language.

The Welsh language has been central to Welsh identity and the historic Welsh independence movement. Welsh has been used and respected by the FAW, not just in a symbolic way but in interviews and press conferences, showing the world and the Welsh people that it is a living language. For more than a century, parts of the Welsh population had a schizophrenic relationship with Welsh. They were proud that it existed but also prone to think that it had no practical use, that it was a language of the past, not the present or the future. The FAW have challenged that view, helping normalise the language by using it where English might have been easier and more widely understood. The last line of the national anthem translates as “May the old language endure”. In the FAW’s actions, there is hope this can become reality.

But football can also give a misleading picture of modern Wales. The Welsh language is only spoken by around a fifth of the population. Its future in its rural heartlands is endangered as young Welsh speakers move away in search of jobs and affordable houses and their place is taken by older English migrants. In urban areas, the language is undergoing something of a revival as more and more parents choose to send their children to Welsh-medium schools, but that can make those children think of the language as something educational and consequently uncool. The playgrounds of those schools are dominated by the English language. Too often their pupils make little of Welsh after they leave.

The particularly assertive and self-confident sense of nationhood that is depicted around football is also misleading. Support for Welsh independence has risen dramatically since Brexit but it remains no higher than maybe a quarter of the electorate. The emotional Britishness that held the union together is fading with generational change, but the old ideas that Wales is too small and too poor to be independent remain very powerful. Migration from England has changed the dynamics of Welsh society. In the 2011 census only 66% of the population recorded their national identity as Welsh. In a recent YouGov poll, 17% of respondents in Wales said they would be supporting England at the World Cup. The proud Welshness so evident in football is not shared by the whole population.

Yet sport has been fundamental to why Welsh identity has survived in the modern period. Through the historical accident of the two sports being invented in the UK, Wales had its own national teams in football and rugby. In the face of internal political and linguistic divisions, these teams provided an emotional symbol to unite behind. It allowed both migrants and the different forms of Welshness to come together and reminded the Welsh, and the wider world, that Wales was a nation. In the face of the immense cultural and political shadow of England and the absence of any real political self-government before 1999 this mattered. The historian Eric Hobsbawm once wrote that the “imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of 11 named people”. In Wales, there has been little else that has done this.

Since the advent of devolution, sport should matter less. The actual devolution referendum in 1997 was won with a majority of less than 7,000 and just a quarter of the total electorate voted in favour. But today it is only a fringe that wants rid of the Senedd (the Welsh Parliament). As political scientists say, devolution has become the settled will of the Welsh people. As is so clear in football, the Welsh have become more comfortable being Welsh. But devolution has in many ways been a disappointment. There are fine words about inclusivity, environmentalism and economic regeneration but little real action. A third of Welsh children grow up in poverty. Waiting times for NHS treatment are much longer in Wales than England.

Yet the Welsh Labour Government gets an easy ride. The Conservative opposition suffers from remarkably poor leadership and has yet to find the distinctive Welsh voice it needs if it is ever to make significant electoral gains. The nationalist opposition is not really an opposition at all. It has an agreement of cooperation with Labour and is often reluctant to criticise anything the Welsh government does, seemingly for fear of being seen to criticise the very concept of devolution. The London media is not interested in Welsh politics, while the Welsh media is too small to offer substantive criticism. The result is that, after 23 years in power, Welsh Labour are secure, complacent and perhaps even arrogant. They made a song and dance about managing Covid in their own way and yet they refuse to hold a Welsh inquiry into what happened.

Wales’s smallness contributes to this. Everyone in Welsh public life seems to know each other. In the media, academia and the voluntary sector, the networks that give people access to funding and power are too small to risk rocking the boat. Rather than criticise, it is often easier to celebrate, and the Welsh media’s upbeat treatment of the World Cup is evidence of this. There has generally been less discussion of the politics of Qatar than in the London media. The Welsh Government has a presence at the tournament and put chasing investment and tourism opportunities before its stated principles of equality and diversity. Yet it has not had substantive criticism for this. Even complaints about the tactics and squad selection were responded to angrily by some fans, who seemed to think it was unpatriotic or ungrateful. In Wales, we too often just seem happy to have qualified. We have waited too long for this for politics to get in the way.

But we shouldn’t just be happy to be there. Our game has matured enough that we should be debating team selections and tactics. Likewise, we shouldn’t just be content that, after centuries of governance from Westminster, we now have our own Senedd. We need to be critical of our institutions and our government. We need to move beyond celebrating the fact that Wales and Welshness are still here and start asking where we are going next. Football shows how deeply many care about Wales, but that passion and patriotism has yet to be put to full use.

Martin Johnes is Professor of Modern History at Swansea University and most recently the author of England’s Colony? The Conquest, Assimilation and Re-creation of Wales