Every generation of Welsh football fans finds their own special moment of heartbreak. I wasn’t alive to witness the great robbery of 1977 when a Maradona-grade handball decision sent Scotland to the 1978 World Cup at our expense and I was a touch too young to have my hopes and dreams brutally crushed by Paul Bodin’s missed penalty of 1993, which would have taken us to USA 94. Instead, I had to wait for 2003 at the Millennium Stadium, watching Wales take on Russia for a spot at the 2004 Euros. It was a match so drab that our fans started chanting “USA, USA, USA”, as though all we had to get excited about was the cold war. In the end, that chant turned out to be weirdly prescient. A few days after our 0-1 defeat, one of the Russian players, Yegor Titov, tested positive for Bromantan, a cold war-era drug allegedly used by the Russian military to give their troops extra stamina. The Welsh FA protested to Uefa, but the result was not overturned and so a new age of Wales supporters had their defining moment of pain.
Looking back, at least I can say that this match was memorable. There were emotions, intrigue and betrayal. Because the truth is that for every time Wales fell short with heroic misfortune, there were numerous other failures without anecdote or narrative. The only reason I know I watched Wales lose 0-1 to Georgia in 1995 was that, when I came to school the next day, my friends said they had seen me on TV. Apparently, the camera had zoomed in on me eating a huge, flappy burger that my dad had bought at half-time. As I bit down on one side of the bun, the other side flared open and all the ketchup and juices came oozing out so that – and here my friends may have been editorialising – it looked like when a boxer gets punched in the mouth, all the dangling strings of blood and saliva. My point is that I have zero recall of what happened on the pitch that day. Apparently Vinnie Jones got a red card and Georgi Kinkladze scored an elegant chip. I couldn’t possibly comment. For many years, watching the Welsh football team was like this – an exercise in forgetting. These were nights on which no dreams were made.
All of which is to say how strange it is that we find ourselves here, with Wales preparing for their third major tournament in less than a decade – and this time a World Cup. And what’s more, the team projects infectious positivity as players and fans all sing Yma O Hyd, a heartfelt folk song that feels like the antithesis of your typical football singalong, not least because its first verse describes the history of our nation in the year 383. There’s also the fact that football – at least when I was growing up in Swansea – was always seen as insufficiently or incorrectly Welsh, and clearly inferior to rugby. That’s not the case any more. Obviously it helps that the country has a talented generation of footballers, but there’s been a cultural shift, too, a sense of Welsh football finding itself.
One symbol of that new identity is – stay with me – a garish yellow, green and red bucket hat. To borrow a phrase from Dylan Thomas, it is an ugly, lovely hat. Look at any picture of the Red Wall – as Wales’s hardcore fans are known – and you’ll see dozens and dozens of bucket-headed supporters so that, in fact, the wall is not just red but also daffodil-coloured. After Wales beat Ukraine to qualify for the World Cup in Qatar, the TV coverage returned to the studio where former Welsh internationals Ashley Williams and Danny Gabbidon were sitting, giggling, dressed in their three-piece suits with wincingly bright bucket hats on their heads. This was not – could not be – a matter of fashion.
The original hat’s creator, Tim Williams, explains that for decades he travelled to watch Wales play – trips as far as Belgrade and Moscow: “All those defeats along the way, wondering if our time would ever come.” He decided to start making his own shirts and hats because he was bored of wearing the same old replica kits and thought others fans might feel the same. This was in 2010 when, as he tells me from his shop in Bala, Gwynedd, “Wales weren’t so good.” He would come back from his job at a builders’ merchants to stay up into the night, packing and sending out parcels. He named his company Spirit of ’58, in reference to the last time Wales made it to a World Cup. (They played Brazil in the quarter-finals, losing to a scuffed goal by a skinny teenager called Pelé.) He says the bucket hat – inspired by his love of the Stone Roses – was “only to bring a bit of colour and fun” to the games. Almost apologetically, he admits, “I know it’s not for everyone.” But – much like the team itself – the hat has gone farther than he, and anyone, expected. As the team improved, so his business picked up until one day: “I came home from Bosnia [where Wales had qualified for Euro 2016] and handed in my notice for the day job.”
It was here, playing at their first major competition in 58 years, that Welsh football found its moment of iconography. They had reached the quarter-finals which, in itself, was hard to believe, and were now drawing 1-1 with Belgium – the highest ranked team at the tournament. On the 55th minute, Hal Robson-Kanu – a player out of contract at Championship side Reading – received the ball on the penalty spot, surrounded by defenders, at which point he performed the most elegant of feints – a Cruyff turn that wrong-footed his opponents, sending three Belgians stumbling away into oblivion – before he calmly slotted the ball home. As he ran down the sidelines grinning, the overwhelming feeling was disbelief. This was not the kind of thing that happens to us.
Six years later and we are almost – almost – getting used to it. When I speak to Williams, he has just received a shipment of 500 pairs of Robson-Kanu-themed socks. He also now makes pin badges, mugs, cycling vests, bibs, beach towels and more – while the Spirit of ’58 edition of the bucket hat sells for £85 on eBay. As he explains, the hat has become a kind of homing beacon for travelling Welsh fans. “When you’re hundreds of miles away and walking down a high street, you can see it instantly,” he says, “and it gets everyone talking. It brings people together.” This reminds me of the Welsh FA’s recent marketing slogan Together, Stronger – which arguably sounds like the bland motto of a building society, except that it genuinely seems to capture an attitude among the team. Despite the range of personalities and backgrounds among the players – those who speak Welsh and those who do not, those who grew up in Wales and those who did not, those who are multimillionaire global stars and those like Kieffer Moore who, until recently, was playing non-league football while still working as a lifeguard in Truro – there is room for everyone beneath the capacious, absurd bucket hat.
And apart from this profound symbolism, let’s not forget that the hat also, you know, keeps the sun off. It offers comprehensive neck coverage, which is what our fans will need in the punishing heat of Qatar as they watch Wales crush England in the groups, then make their inevitable, unstoppable progress towards the trophy.
This is such a strange feeling. I’m not even sure if I’m joking.
Joe Dunthorne is a Welsh novelist.