Wales’s football revolution is born of tears, pride, fan culture and radical history | World Cup 2022

Wales fans have been waiting 64 years to take their place among football’s elite and a long-held pipe dream has suddenly begun to feel very real. For some, confirmation that we have made it came when they saw Wales in a Panini World Cup sticker album, unfinished business from childhood being concluded in middle age. For others it is the uncharacteristic cavalcade of content around the Wales squad. TV documentaries, pages to ourselves in broadsheet pull-outs, journalists who have spent careers covering other teams muttering about “indefatigable team spirit” on podcasts, all complementing the Football Association of Wales’s relentless social media blitz; footage of Gareth Bale putting off Chris Gunter as he tries to pose for his official photo, Ben Davies ruffling Joe Rodon’s hair, the team laughing as they do stretches in the new training kit that is flying off the shelves in Wales.

For me it was seeing Cafu, the greatest full-back of all time and the most capped Brazil footballer, welcome Wales to the tournament on behalf of Budweiser by speaking Welsh. “Cymru,” he says, resplendent in our 21st‑century national dress, the Spirit of ’58 bucket hat; “Croeso nol” (“Welcome back”).

The first time I watched Cafu explain that how our qualification had inspired him felt mildly disorienting, like tripping up the stairs, or finding one’s wallet in the fridge. The second time my eyeballs stung with pride. We are announcing ourselves on the world stage. And we are doing it in the Welshest way imaginable.

The Empire State Building was lit up in red, blue and white to celebrate the USA players who will contest Group B against Wales, England and Iran. Gareth Southgate announced his squad at St George’s Park, the state-of-the-art facility in Staffordshire where the England teams train. Southgate took questions from the press about James Maddison’s fitness and Trent Alexander-Arnold’s inclusion in front of a wall adorned with the English FA’s corporate sponsors, perfectly reasonable behaviour for the manager of a national football team. Rob Page announced his squad at Tylorstown Welfare Hall, the last remaining miners’ welfare hall in the Rhondda Fach valley, a community facility minutes from where his parents still live. You do it your way. This is how we do it in Wales.

There was a time when the FAW comprised dozens of old, white men who would meet in Caersws to make bad decisions. But over the past decade or so a revolution happened around the Wales football team. An organic, fan‑led culture has emerged in the stands, feeding off the golden generation that has represented us on the pitch. But the FAW has transformed itself into a modern, progressive governing body staffed by supporters who would be in the Canton end of the Cardiff City Stadium if they were not working at each game in an official capacity.

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For those who remember the daydreaming each failed qualification campaign would bring (“Would Rush and Hughes have found the defences at Mexico 86 as acquiescent as they did those in the English First Division? How would Yorath and Toshack have coped with the heat of Argentina 78? Was Euro 2004 ready for Craig Bellamy?”), what no one imagined as we cried in our pints was a revitalised FAW tapping into a growing sense of Welsh self-confidence, that it would use qualification for football’s biggest stage as a nation‑building exercise.

The official Wales World Cup song is Yma o Hyd. Originally released in 1983 by Dafydd Iwan, a singer who by 2022 had retired, it was adopted by the players who found its melody stirring and its message inspiring. Yma o Hyd. We’re Still Here. Conceived initially as a retort to Thatcherism, Iwan was asked by the players to perform it before the World Cup playoff semi-final against Austria and a phenomenon was born.

The accompanying video has all of the knee‑slide celebrations and crowd shots expected from a World Cup single but it is also interspersed with footage of the 1984-85 miners’ strike, Cymdeithas yr Iaith (the Welsh Language Society) demonstrations from the 1960s, and the statue of Betty Campbell, the community activist who became Wales’s first black head teacher. It’s the video you didn’t know you needed; an elated Kieffer Moore interspersed with a crash course in Wales’s radical history. We have waited a long time to tell our story at the world’s largest sporting event. So forgive us if there are a few things we need to get off our chest.

Football fans often adopt the character of the team they support, and Welsh fans are no different. A tapas of heartbreak had been filed away in every supporter’s mental Rolodex, creating a fanbase with a healthy sense of humour and world‑class resilience to disappointment. But we are no longer defined by failure. Wales are ranked 19th in the world. We have reached three of the past four major tournaments. Just getting to a World Cup has always been the ambition, but no one feels we do not deserve to be there.

I first noticed football’s power for putting Wales in the spotlight during Euro 2016, when taxi drivers and bar owners would shout “Gareth Bale!” at Wales fans as we walked around Bordeaux or Toulouse. But when children play football in the street, it’s the World Cup they’re imagining, not the European Championship.

In the current scramble for context, one observation about Wales’s first appearance at a World Cup for 64 years struck me like no other. John Charles, Ivor Allchurch and the boys of ’58 were closer to the first modern Olympics of 1896 than they are to the class of ’22. Cliff Jones and Terry Medwin, the two remaining members of the 1958 team who played in Sweden, met the present squad last week. Cliff and Terry are 87 and 90 years old respectively, both Swansea boys and Tottenham legends from the double‑winning team of 1961, and they chatted convivially to Bale about his fitness before posing for selfies. This current Wales team respects its past. But it is making history.

Elis James has donated his fee for this column to Amnesty International, which is campaigning for Qatar and Fifa to establish a compensation fund for migrant workers.

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