Welsh football fans have flocked to support their team around the world in recent years

The clocks have just struck 9am and a queue is snaking outside Clwb Ifor Bach. Or Welsh Club, as some call it. 

This place, near Cardiff Castle, has become a second home for Wales football fans. These three floors are where they head after games. 

On Friday, this is where hundreds gathered to watch their clash with Iran: the home front of a revolution that carried Rob Page’s side to Qatar. Relics of Wales’ long road back to the World Cup are all around. Above the urinals, where stickers hail the ‘Spirit of ‘58’. 

Welsh football fans have flocked to support their team around the world in recent years

Welsh football fans have flocked to support their team around the world in recent years

This World Cup is not going to plan but there has been a reawakening of the country at large

This World Cup is not going to plan but there has been a reawakening of the country at large

And on supporters’ backs, where replica shirts paint a timeline through those years of hurt.

The resurgence of Welsh football over the past decade has been a thrilling triumph. Whatever their fate in Group B, it won’t dent the Red Wall or the movement enveloping this team: the bucket hats, the national pride, the sharpened sense of identity, the resurgence of a language and the re-awakening of a country at large. 

‘Football (is) almost like a focal point for this growing sense of Welshness within Wales – the growing confidence in Welshness, the growing politicisation of Welshness,’ historian Martin Johnes explains. 

Or, as former Wales captain Laura McAllister put it recently: ‘Football is probably the best barometer of where we are as a nation. ‘The fans have a name for what they built: Independent Football Nation. Success on the pitch entwined with a new nationalism in the stands.‘ 

‘I don’t think you can divorce football from politics,’ says Tim Hartley, who has followed Wales from the doldrums to Doha. 

Ex-Wales captain Laura McAllister says football is intertwined with nationalism in the stands

Ex-Wales captain Laura McAllister says football is intertwined with nationalism in the stands

‘This World Cup has shown that. Support for Welsh independence has surged in recent years. From 3 per cent in 2014 to around 30 per cent. And so, ahead of Wales’ meeting with England, questions arise: about the future of the United Kingdom. And what role football could play in sparking change.‘

The success of the last few years does give us a hell of a lot of confidence as a nation,’ claims Geraint Thomas of independence movement YesCymru.

‘What have we got to be afraid of? That’s the feeling as well, politically. We are a small nation but we have everything we need to survive… so why not? It’s kind of an idiom for us all.’

Thomas can recall grim trips across Europe, when Wales’ world ranking was greater than their number of travelling fans. As recently as 2012, some feared the team’s days were numbered. 

The brief experiment with Team GB football fuelled concerns that Wales would be subsumed into a British team, dominated by England.An illustration, some might say, of the hand this nation has long been dealt. But then gathered a ‘perfect storm’.

Results have played their part. So have supporters – ‘a new Welsh culture’ has developed around language and fashion and music and politics with football, in the words of one, ‘almost a vessel’.

But so have the FAW.‘ They have been excellent in the way they have developed the brand of Welsh football,’ Thomas says. ‘They wanted to have a deliberate, separate identity.’

Players are taught about Welsh history and culture; language is at heart of everything. Ben Davies became the first player to speak Welsh at a World Cup press conference. The FAW are considering renaming the team Cymru. Among those driving charge? CEO Noel Mooney, an Irishman on a mission to master Welsh himself.‘

Wales face England on Tuesday having only picked up a solitary point so far

Wales face England on Tuesday having only picked up a solitary point so far 

They have helped normalise the fact that Wales is a distinct nation with a distinct history, culture and language,’ Johnes says.‘ They have instilled confidence in… being honest about our politics and our past,’ Thomas adds, ‘That’s given the wider population of Wales a connection to them.’ 

Nothing ‘escalated’ change like Euro 2016 – according to McAllister that summer ‘injected a big dose of national self-confidence that went beyond football.’ And nothing embodies the FAW’s stirring, if slightly contentious, policy like Yma O Hyd – a protest song that has become the soundtrack to Welsh football. It was released in 1983 by Dafydd Iwan, a former president of Plaid Cymru who was jailed several times fighting for the Welsh language. The song (‘Still Here’), is an ode to Wales’ strength to survive. ‘In spite of everyone and everything’, including ‘Maggie and her crew’.

Chris Gunter added it to the team playlist years ago. ‘It’s a big part of what we’re all about,’ Page said. The FAW made Yma O Hyd Wales’ official World Cup anthem and released a special music video. Even Iwan admits it’s ‘politically charged’. There is footage of the miners’ strike, of language protests, of Iwan leaving prison.‘ They’ve been very brave,’ Thomas adds. 

Certainly the video might shock some in England. ‘I can understand them being surprised because I was,’ Thomas says. McAllister, among a group of ambassadors in Qatar to promote Wales, agrees: ‘It’s not that usual for a sports governing body to be so overtly political.’ 

Chris Gunter added Yma O Hyd to the team playlist and the song is politically charged

Chris Gunter added Yma O Hyd to the team playlist and the song is politically charged

Those three words – Yma O Hyd – also began a rousing speech by Michael Sheen. The actor, a vocal nationalist who values a ‘conversation’ on independence, spoke to Page’s squad. But what is not immediately clear: are the FAW driving the winds of change? Or riding upon them? 

‘It feels like we’re completely at the epicentre of building social change,’ Mooney has said.‘ Like we have a chance to build on something that is not just football, but part of the cultural evolution of the country.’ 

Johnes argues the FAW have taken latent feelings – ‘always there but maybe among a minority’ – and helped make them mainstream. Hartley says they have done their bit to ‘un-weaponise’ the Welsh language, which has been resurgent on the terraces and beyond for some time. 

‘It is in tune with how many fans see their Welshness – a proud, confident nation,’ Johnes adds. ‘Too often national institutions in Wales have been a bit reluctant to do that.’ Perhaps unsurprisingly, given people will inevitably wonder: how entangled with Welsh nationalism is anti-English feeling? 

‘I don’t think there is any anti-English sentiment at all,’ Thomas says. No matter Yma O Hyd, or the climax to Sheen’s speech: ‘When the English come knocking on our door, let’s give ’em some Welsh sugar! They’ve always said we’re too small, too slow, too weak, too full of fear!’ Anti-Westminster, not anti-English. That is the crucial distinction. And, make no mistake, independence binds significant parts of the Red Wall. ‘It’s certainly prominent and vocal and more self-confident probably than it’s ever been,’ says McAllister.

Before matches, ‘Welsh Football Fans for Independence’ march to the stadium; Yma O Hyd is a symptom rather than a cause. Of ‘a new mood among fans where they can see Wales’s success on the football pitch not necessarily being reflected in other aspects of Welsh life,’ McAllister says. 

‘That has made Welsh football fans more political. ’She explains: ‘Football has been instrumental in promoting an independent Wales – I don’t mean politically, I mean an understanding that Wales is a nation in its own right.’ Especially among younger generations.

‘They have no qualms or worries about feeling that Wales is an independent football nation – it can govern itself and manage itself in other regards as well.’ 

This melting pot was exemplified by Wales’ Constitution Commission, who ahead of World Cup games have been inviting supporters to take a survey on how the nation should be governed. It all brings the FAW’s policy into sharper focus.

‘I don’t think you can lay the charge of promoting independence at (their) door,’ Hartley insists. But are they doing much to put out those fires?‘

Football is part of the story of the growth of support for independence but it’s not what’s underlying it,’ Johnes insists.

He cites Brexit, and Scotland’s ‘Yes’ movement, as among crucial drivers. ‘That means football alone is never going to deliver independence. And that helps explain why Welsh rugby never sparked such a shift. Not when Phil Bennett supposedly told team-mates in 1977: ‘We’ve been exploited, raped, controlled and punished by the English.’ 

Not during the glory years of Warren Gatland.‘ People weren’t questioning the future of the UK in the way they are now,’ Johnes adds. 

On Tuesday, however, all that is at stake? A place in the last 16. ‘Sport is a strange thing,’ Thomas says. 

‘In some ways it’s completely pointless. But in other ways it’s defining nations and a people.’

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