Football, Rugby, Wales and Me
A personal look at how sport, nationality and politics intertwine
I’ve always been patriotic. Today, it’s mostly evident in my politics. I want my country governed not in the interests of the rich, but of its citizens and for the wider benefit of humanity and the planet as a whole. I want to see an independent, internationalist, green, multilingual, community-focused, socialist, republic of Wales. I’m not asking for much, I know.
Growing up, however, I understood little about how my country was run (which of course was no accident.) So, like many people, sport was the medium through which I channelled my patriotism.
Patriotism can be a dangerous thing when attached to feelings of superiority, but can be a force for good when linked to something positive. It isn’t always easy, however, to make the connections. The overheard mutterings of adults told me that being Welsh was something to be proud of; we were good people, who cared about one another. Living in the valleys I knew I came from mining stock, but understood little of the history that came with it. School and media taught me nothing of our place in the struggle for equality. I’d never heard of the Chartists and knew nothing of the Merthyr Uprising, or that a Welshman had been instrumental in the formation of the NHS, despite growing up in an area central to those movements. I didn’t know the political injustices embedded in the story of Tryweryn, or horrifically in what is often simply and disingenuously remembered as the ‘disaster’ of Aberfan.
So my patriotism wasn’t attached to anything tangible; what was good about being Welsh was left to my imagination. Television helped to teach me the value and importance of other cultures, but the absence of my own was noticeable. Very rarely did I hear my own accent on the telly, and whenever we did get a mention it was often from the perspective of someone looking inward, seemingly at something foreign, something odd. These brief encounters with Welshness through our England-centric media, complete with the mandatory butchered pronunciations of place-names, certainly helped foster a sense the Welsh were different. And of course there were other little things, like the friendly chats with strangers in the street that were absent on occasional trips to London. But, not being a Welsh-speaker at the time, there was nothing I could easily put my finger on.
With no better way to articulate the sense of belonging I felt in my community, national sports teams were an easy way to anchor such feelings and give them a sense of coherency. There’s nothing so obvious, so easy, and therefore attractive, as the colour of a jersey.
A while back, I set up a Twitter account to engage in the political debates of Wales. Inevitably, many of my followers are sports fans; the majority are football fans. I’d enthusiastically watch a Wales team compete at tiddlywinks, but consider myself primarily a rugby fan, so this interested me. It got me thinking about how sport has affected me throughout my life, and about how ultimately it can even help to shape a nation.
Rugby fans are often quite comfortable with the assertion that our sport is the national sport of Wales; a notion often supported by our own limited media and lazy, London stereotyping. But in reality, the fact that rugby is bigger here than almost anywhere else in the world does not make it the biggest sport in Wales. Football is surely the biggest sport in the world, and, as is the case with so many countries, it’s played and supported in every corner of Wales. One of football’s great strengths is its accessibility, and as such, coupled with greater global prominence, it has to be considered Wales’ biggest sport.
Peer pressure is regrettably an ever-present facet of childhood, and even the strongest characters have the tendency to fall in line. At four years old my daughter adapted her favourite colour to pink, because, the rule goes, girls like pink. It’s true that her previous favourite of ‘rainbow’ was perhaps a little broad, and I’m sure her tenacious individuality will win out in the end, but for now she has succumbed to the opinions of thirty-odd other toddlers.
Personally, I remember all the boys in my primary school needing to be able to identify the make and model of every car that passed the yard. I remember the pride of correctly identifying a particular Renault, and the humiliation of discovering I wasn’t supposed to pronounce the ‘l’ or ‘t’.
It was also mandatory to support a football team. Every boy, in every class, of every school, had to have a team. Of course, of those children with little interest in sport there were always some with the courage not to succumb to peer pressure, but for most it was easier and safer to simply choose a team.
Growing up, the back pages of the Daily Mirror and occasional glimpses of Match of the Day offered me no Welsh teams, so I simply chose what was on offer. Glory seekers by nature, most kids in my class were Liverpool fans because they were the best team, though some liked to hedge their bets. Over the course of a few of years, one friend supported Leeds because his dad did, Everton because his cousin did, and Spurs because he loved the Klinsmann dive-celebration. He was also the first to declare his support for Man United, when it became apparent their age of dominance was beginning.
The other kids soon became attuned to this power shift, and one by one they duly ditched Liverpool and donned upturned collars in emulation of Eric Cantona. I dutifully followed suit, because for me the whole purpose of having a team was to fit in; it was only me and Mam at home, and with her not being much of a sports fan I’d never really watched much football. But my Nanna had bought me the Liverpool kit, the one where they’d first changed the badge to celebrate the club’s 100th year, and it felt like changing teams was somehow disloyal. So I read the sports pages and told my friends I was chuffed that Man U had won again, while secretly putting up posters of Robbie Fowler and Steve McManaman on my wall.
The only live sport I ever watched was annually at my grandparents’ house. It was never on for my benefit, but my Grancha paid enough attention to the Five Nation for me to know it was important. He was a big man; stern, often grumpy, always kind. Whatever shirt he wore to the Miners’ Welfare Club needed a pocket on the left breast for his cigar. The rest of the time he favoured a woollen, burgundy V-neck; emblazoned on its left breast in place of the pocket was a small, white three feathers.
He was a miner, retired by the time of my birth, and swore like a miner; or so I’m told. He was careful to watch his language around children, and there were always enough of them about. The second time I heard him swear I’d been skulking around silently with my wrestling figures, preparing some sort of ambush as he watched the rugby in the living room, unaware of my presence. It was Wales V England, and I could tell the team in white had just scored. I thought that his disappointment, anger even, was on an emotional level beyond what was a reasonable response to other people losing a game. And I was sure, somehow, it was related to the first time I had ever heard him swear. Then it had prefixed the word ‘Tories’; he had been watching the news and I had appeared at his shoulder in similar fashion.
At school I wasn’t awful at sports, but I didn’t exactly excel either. I preferred to draw, and, having already nailed my sketches of the dragon, I enjoyed the complexity of the three feathers. No matter how many times I drew them it was always a challenge to get the symmetry right. To me, they were Wales; shamefully, I assumed the motto ‘Ich Dien’ to be something inspirational in Welsh. I had no idea it was a commitment to serve the crown sitting at the centre of my doodles, which to my knowledge had no meaning beyond decoration. To me, my drawings were simply a small, careful act of patriotism in retaliation to Thatcher, or Will Carling, or whichever figurehead of condescension or working-class oppression had upset someone I knew that week. Subconsciously, my repetitive lines on a page were reinforcing the link I had made between rugby and something positive.
Here’s a phrase guaranteed to wind up any football fan: soccer is a gentleman’s game, played by hooligans; rugby is a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen. And it is, of course, absolute nonsense.
But phrases have power, the kind political demagogues of today have become adept at utilizing through their rhetoric. I was first introduced to it by my other grandfather. We were watching something on the news about violence at a football game. I was around eight, with no direct experience of real football fans, and hadn’t realised he’d meant it tongue-in-cheek because the reporter had used the same word. There they were: football fans, demonised on screen, forever associated with the word hooligan.
It was hard to disassociate the two even when I realised he actually liked football. He didn’t actively support a team beyond the national side, but he was a fan of Mark Hughes, so followed Man United. This is similar to the formula I use myself when it comes to football.
One day, I opened an old AA road map to study to study all the cities in Wales, not realising that at the time only Cardiff and Swansea qualified. It was only then it dawned on me that neither Manchester nor Liverpool were in my country. Cardiff, Swansea and Wrexham football clubs were languishing down in the old third and fourth divisions, maybe even the conference (did they even put those scores on Ceefax?) Either way, their players weren’t splashed over the back pages of the Mirror. So I stuck with Liverpool to some degree because of Ian Rush, but now my pleasure in celebrating Man U victories with friends was real because of Giggs. These days my fondness for Arsenal has transferred to Juventus, and, while I find it hard to celebrate Real Madrid victories, whenever I hear they’ve done well I scour match reports for one name in particular.
Topflight club rugby was physically more accessible: valley teams that would have been under the same pinprick as my house on that old map played regularly against the top teams in Europe. But the fanaticism of the hardcore season ticket holders doesn’t transfer to the general public without help, and the London media paid less attention to Cardiff RFC than it did to Cardiff FC. So it was never really on my radar.
In any case, my motivation to follow professional sports as a kid stemmed from a desire to fit in; the fun was to be had in actually playing them. My school’s approach to rugby was to only devote time to the boys who already understood the myriad rules and who played for local teams outside school, which was a list that didn’t include me. And it isn’t a sport designed for playing in the lane behind your house, unless you live in Fiji and your house backs onto a beach. The one time I remember playing rugby in the back lane with some cousins, I was tackled once (grazed elbows) and made one tackle (landed awkwardly with a knee to the groin and couldn’t walk for 20 minutes.)
Football, however, was easy. Games of 5, 11 or even 15 a side were common. I remember my first kick about at dinner break in primary school. I was on the same team as a boy who was a year younger than me, but he was one of those kids who was good at everything. He was easily the best player there, and chose to go in goals to make it fair. I was amazed at his luck when each time he hoofed the ball long it miraculously landed at the feet of one of our teammates. It hadn’t occurred to me that with practice this level of control was possible. But unlike with rugby, opportunity to practice football was abundant.
I could just take a ball outside after school, kick it against a garage door a few times, and the noise would attract half the kids in the street. If there wasn’t enough for a full game, one of the garage doors would act as a goal (as long as the boy who lived there said his dad was out.) Failing that, a handful of us would have a kick-up competition, and even if no one else turned up at all there were still enough people to play. I spent hours practicing kick-ups alone and my record of 544 remains (a little depressingly) one of my greatest sporting accomplishments two decades on. But no matter how good I got, that one boy continued to improve, amazing the rest of us with what could be done with a ball.
He was also decent on a games console, but I was more of a match for him in that department. In my late teens one of the boys got a flat and we’d all go there to drink and play Jonah Lomu Rugby or FIFA World Cup 98 for the original PlayStation. On the few occasions he joined us I think I got the better of him in both.
In Jonah Lomu Rugby, Gareth Thomas was the only Welsh player worth giving the ball to, but he had nothing on Lomu himself (who was implausibly good, as he was in real life.) Wales were underdogs, bad enough to make victory for the little men in pixilated red a challenge for skilled gamers. It felt like a decent simulation of the difficulties Wales faces to achieve any sort of international recognition. FIFA ‘98 had no Wales. So instead, I got to learn how to pronounce Croatian names, and discover the existence of Valderama’s hair.
But games consoles are no substitute for the real thing. My first experience with stadium sport came in primary school, when my best friend’s new stepdad had been instructed by his mam to take us. It was football and Cardiff were playing, presumably at Ninian Park. Our chaperon told us it wasn’t like one of those games you see on telly, with the noise and the cheering; we were to remain seated and silent. I had limited knowledge of the games he referenced, so from his repeated instructions I was expecting something akin to a school assembly. I realise now he was uncomfortable around children and worried sick he may be embarrassed by unexpected or unruly behaviour on our part, but there was noise, the crowd did cheer, and we sat among them silently and formally. Despite this, I enjoyed the 3–3 draw against forgotten opposition, and stayed up to watch Match of the Day to make sense of the final minute, scrambled tap-in that Cardiff had conceded.
But overall, the experience had been weird. Just as a certain phrase had the power to colour my opinions, that day seemingly confirmed the idea that football was a sport for playing, not watching.
My next stadium experience wasn’t until I was 18. Wales were playing rugby world champions South Africa at the Millennium Stadium. I was stunned by the scale of it, the sound of 72,000 people cheering on Wales as they tried to back up their first ever victory over the Springboks the year before. I was more stunned to discover that of the 72,000 seats, mine was one away from my ex-girlfriend; the seat between us was occupied by her dad. Once again the atmosphere was awkward for me, but this time it didn’t last as we were caught up in the excitement of the game. It led to me going to as many rugby internationals as I could over the next few years.
I was well into my twenties before I finally realised that professional football in the flesh is actually pretty damn good. Again in the Millennium, I was a little wary because despite having long realised the hooligan tag was nonsense I knew there would be crowd segregation. I’d been told the lower tiers beneath the fans of our Polish opposition were empty in case projectiles or urine found their way down. Instead, what I found was a lively, party atmosphere to which the Poland fans contributed to greatly. The only antagonising was directed elsewhere and came in the form of singing: they got half the stadium on their feet with a rendition of ‘Stand Up if You Hate England’.
It was the sort of audience participation that I’d always heard the rugby had been like, ‘back in the day’. I’ve seen fantastic footage of harmonious Welsh hymns in the old National Stadium, but they were in black and white. These days the pre-match renditions of Calon Lân can feel a little contrived. In my limited experience, the singing of football is seldom matched by rugby outside of Llanelli (which is why I support a recent petition to introduce a singing section to the Millennium Stadium.)
But the positive experience came too late; rugby was by this point firmly established as my sport, and I was a member of my village rugby club. I was surrounded by players who, it was widely accepted, could have and in some cases should have gone on to play for Wales. A handful went on to earn semi-professional contracts, while arguably the best of them prioritised other careers, sticking with rugby as a hobby and remaining loyal to the local team. My youth captain, and later the senior captain, was the boy whose footballing skills impressed me so much as a kid.
I was and remain relatively introverted, so joining had been a big deal for me. I never had the confidence to be ‘pro-active’ in socialising, but I could go to the club knowing that if he was there — which he invariably was — he’d call me over and pull up a chair. That was often it, but that’s all that was needed. I was instantly comfortable; part of it all. Even if we didn’t speak again the whole night, he’d helped me overcome the biggest hurdle, and from there I went on to make some great friends.
And the friends included the whole village: big men with big reputations; old men with bigger reputations; their wives; their young children. For me the rugby club was a great leveller. Where once I would have identified as a teenager, feeling worthy only of suspicion from my elders, suddenly I was worthy of respect from anyone providing I showed some myself. I learned what it was to be part of a community, which has ultimately shaped my politics — it was also there that I first discovered, in graphic detail, the precise reasons not to vote Tory.
The club took me on my first trip to Scotland when playing for the youth team. It was a five-hour alcohol-fuelled coach trip that left us in no shape to play the following morning. The Scottish boys took the game more seriously, limiting themselves to shocking amounts of Iron Brew. While they ran through their moves during the pre-match warm-up, half our side knelt spewing on the touchline. We were also without our captain and a few other key players unable to travel, so it was no surprise we went on to lose 5–0 in what should be recognised as the most atrocious game in history. Somehow my photo made it into the local Scottish paper, and I’d been labelled the next Scott Gibbs (despite wearing his 13 shirt I’d actually had an anonymous game at open-side, so the journalist clearly hadn’t watched the game — but the photo looked good.)
We drank too much in the club afterwards and I got lost on the way to Murrayfield, spending the Wales game singing Flower of Scotland with strangers in an Edinburgh bar. Excessive drinking has to be acknowledged as the most harmful aspect of Welsh rugby culture and not something to be celebrated, but on this occasion (and similar trips to Ireland) it was a big part of a successful trip. We bonded with new friends while older generations caught up with established ones. These friendships extend beyond rugby, as large groups continue to make the journey both ways outside of international weekends: for weddings, funerals, and once, thankfully, to return my shoes. Thanks to Neil Jenkins’ boot the game was drawn, and it felt like the right result.
A couple of years later I moved westward to university. I joined the rugby team there, just long enough for the captain to teach me a couple of phrases of Welsh and secure a few friends to watch the internationals with. A knee injury was the excuse I needed to retire at 21, but I continued to visit my local club and watch the occasional game whenever I was home. It acted as an anchor for me to stay in touch with my community, with the people who made me me. But as the years went by, I returned to the valleys to live but not my village, and gradually my visits to the club became more and more infrequent. My generation seemed to be the last to stay loyal and consider the club to be a night out in itself, with the youngsters choosing bigger towns or even Cardiff. As a result, it was quieter each time I turned up.
I was eating breakfast one morning when I heard the phone ringing upstairs. I wouldn’t have been able to say the last time I had been back to my rugby club at this point, but it had been a long time; maybe a year. I answered the phone and sat on the bed: it was Mam, and she sounded upset. My childhood friend, the footballing exhibitionist turned rugby genius and captain, had died.
It had been a tragic accident. Even though we weren’t close, for me he represented the rugby club and the club was my link to home, my history, my identity; it hit me hard. I had only seen him a few days before.
A few weeks later, I drove by the rugby club only to discover it had been torn down. He was gone, the club was gone, and I felt like a part of me had been ripped out.
Part of the reason I had stopped going to the club was the fact I had stopped drinking. I’d met my partner, and we were starting a family. Suddenly I had time to read; the news became relevant to me, and I became interested in politics. By 2016 I was convinced the societal problems in Wales were not helped by the pantomime in Westminster, and that in fact the ‘union’ caused or exacerbated many of them. I was increasingly confident that political independence was the best solution for Wales.
The Brexit vote was imminent, and two futures of Wales were being painted before us. The more progressive parties, including Plaid Cymru, styled an image of an inclusive, outward-looking nation with real, practical ambitions to help the people who needed it most. While the Remain campaign often featured a grotesquely romanticised account of what the EU stood for, for me it was far more attractive than the alternative.
People voted Leave for many different reasons, but the Brexit campaign focused on the power and sovereignty of a union I’d already identified as the catalyst to Wales’ problems. The touted positives, like the extra funding for the NHS, were quickly revealed to be lies. The truth was that Brexit looked increasingly likely to be orchestrated by the wealthy and the far-right. The clearer this became, the more it empowered the racists and the xenophobes, who more often than not wrapped themselves in the Union Jack.
As so many people often do, I turned to sport for a distraction. Euro ‘16 was about to begin, and it was the first major football tournament Wales had qualified for since getting knocked out of the 1958 World Cup by Pele’s Brazil. I have friends who’d waited their whole lives for this, the pessimists among them fearing it would never come, yet even they emitted an infectious air of optimism. My interest in football had again been piqued.
To be Welsh on an international stage is to be constantly explaining we’re not part of England, yet still never to be viewed as a real country like Ireland; often, at best, we might be accepted as being almost like Scotland. But now, plastered all over the telly, there were thousands of Welsh faces proud to take their place on the world stage. We were showing the world we have our own flag and our own anthem, competing against England, getting further than them. Here was tiny, insignificant Wales beating the biggest country in the world 3–0. We were telling a global audience that the Real Madrid star who broke the transfer record was Welsh, not British. We were scoring the goal of the tournament, prompting most of Welsh Twitter to change their Twitter-handles.
But for me, it did more than this. The Wales fans, commended by UEFA for their ‘outstanding contribution’ to the tournament, didn’t shy away from politics. While videos were doing the rounds of England fans chanting racist slurs across the continent, many Welsh fans were draped in EU flags and composing far more conciliatory melodies. Obviously, such generalisations would be unfair to the majority of England fans and, I’m sure, unrepresentative of many Welsh fans too — it’s dangerous to apply hegemony to any group, especially on issues unrelated to their grouping.
But there were clearly huge numbers of Welsh football fans who shared my vision of an open, inclusive Wales with equality at its core. These fans were not the violent hooligans I saw on telly in the 80s, or the stern and formal stepdad who wanted children to be neither seen nor heard. They were reflections of myself, wearing my pride and politics on their sleeves. What’s more, I discovered many were harbouring their own desires for Welsh political independence.
Unfortunately, I was also reminded of the antagonism between Welsh football and rugby fans. I followed many a political Twitter thread by Welsh football accounts, nodding furiously in agreement, until all too often I’d find myself dismissed with an incongruous swipe at rugby supporters for being right-leaning monarchists and unionists. These accusations aren’t baseless, of course: by this point I was well aware of the origins of my once beloved three feathers, and when watching with any level of consciousness (which previously I had not) it’s hard to miss how the militaristic Welsh Rugby Union parades its sycophancy of a monarchy that supports the opposition. But they’re unfair and inaccurate assumptions when applied to fans, and, like the insults thrown in the opposite direction, stand in the way of an opportunity.
The 80-minute patriot is a concept that has achieved a lot of attention in Wales of late. It’s true that it frustrates to see so many turn up for Six Nations matches clad in red, with daffodil hats and leeks, screaming like their country is their one and only priority, only to forget it when it really matters; political opportunities to improve our lives are missed time and time again as the desire to see the country thrive disappears with our hangovers.
But democracies need majorities, and these are the people we need on board to achieve anything meaningful. What’s more, if there is to be a political movement aimed at improving the fortunes of the peoples of Wales, surely they’re ready and waiting to be convinced? The passion is real, it just needs to be focused.
The more rebellious nature of Welsh football likely stems from Wales’ relative positions in each sport. It was only recently I learned that the Cymru Premier, Wales’ Premier football league, had been hastily formed because of a perceived threat to Wales’ eligibility to field an independent national team (helping the fans’ slogan ‘Independent Football Nation’ suddenly make sense.) And the battle isn’t won; the fragility of our position is made clear whenever the Olympics and the spectre of ‘Team GB’ periodically raise their heads.
Contrast this with rugby’s comfortable status: our independence within the sport is under no threat, largely thanks to its inability to call itself a truly global sport. If you take away the independent identities of Scotland and Wales, you wipe out a third of the teams in Europe’s biggest international competition. But it does not follow that Welsh rugby fans are union lovers, cosying up to the royals. While rugby has always been an upper-class sport in most countries it’s played, in Wales it has its roots firmly planted in the working class. It was an opportunity for men who, having worked physically demanding jobs during the week, often in mines or steelworks, could spend their precious spare time competing against an English class who could afford to spend their week training. In order to maintain this advantage, the powers-that-be demanded the sport remain amateur. The working classes of the north of England broke away to create Rugby League; the Welsh agreed, but paid our players anyway. These men were likely socialist, and neither monarchist nor staunchly unionist, as this footage from when we had to play God Save the Queen before internationals testifies.
Many Welsh rugby fans share the values of our footballing counterparts, we just haven’t had the need to be as vocal. Sport, by nature, is tribal, but fans with a common goal that transcends sport need to work together to create a better society, for everyone. The potential to convert 80- or 90-minute patriots into a mass of people eager to work to make Wales a fairer place is huge. As the Euro ‘16 campaign put it: Together Stronger.
The likes of Bale, Ramsey, Giggs, Rush and Charles prove we can compete with anything the world has to offer; there are no barriers to what we can achieve. Our rugby stars, on the other hand, remain among us. The likes of Alun Wyn Jones walk our streets, practicing Welsh with fans, proving our communities are as valid as any other. Success is literally within reach.
Rugby gave me my community, but without football I never would have found it. The kids I bonded with over a football were the same ones who introduced me to rugby. And while my club may be a building-site today, it left a lasting imprint on who I am. It’s influenced the way I think, what I want for my children, what I want for my country. At a time when we need to come together more than ever before, sport could be the key.