Wales are taking part in their first international football finals since 1958. Ashok Ahir asks: can the team unite the country more than rugby does and show why football is the true national game and can appeal to all?
With a black captain, a star player who wears a top-knot and an association that has been commended for its use of both official languages, it’s already happening.
There was a big debate in Wales last year when prominent sports official said that qualifying for France 2016 was more important for Wales than winning the Rugby World Cup.
Professor Laura McAllister who at the time was Chair of Sport Wales, argued that getting to the European Championships would “have a deeper and more significant resonance for our international reputation and profile”
Well Wales has made it through to UEFA Euro 2016, one of five nations to do so for the first time and they have done so with the whole nation, football fan or not behind them.
In the age of social media, every team and national association at the Euros is using slogans and hashtags to drive engagement and support for their teams.
Together.Stronger was born out of the motto on Wales’ badge ‘Gorau Chwarae Cyd Chwarae’ which translates from Welsh as ‘Best Play is Team Play’.
The motto is inspiring, calling on all those who wear the badge to be the best they can be, to represent their small nation with pride, not just as individuals but collectively as a team.
The mentality of Together.Stronger permeates throughout Welsh football, the approach from the Football Association of Wales is for all involved, on the pitch, in the stands and at home to feel part of the team.
In terms of marketing, the slogan was used to create a composite poster image made up of individual selfies from supporters across Wales and across the globe. This has been taken forward into the branding you can see at the team’s Euro 2016 headquarters in Dinard, Britanny.
Diversity is a key element of those images – with Asian women, pensioners and children standing side-by-side with Ashley Williams, Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey.
Together.Stronger was also the reason why the first two questions in Gareth Bale’s press conference came not from Wales or UK based journalists, but from two young footballers at his former school, Whitchurch High School in Cardiff.
Education of a National Team
Following on from the unity created within the team, among the association and with the fans, in recent seasons, the team has been educated about what it means to be Welsh. When the team played in Belgium during the qualifiers, they were taken to Mametz Wood and the Wales World War I Memorial in Flanders.
They team also visited the grave of Hedd Wyn, the Welsh language poet who won the Chair at the National Eisteddfod in absentia. This is a team that has not just been taught the words of the national anthem, Mae Hen Wlad Fyn Nhadau, which of course is sung in Welsh, they’ve been taught what each line means.
The team has been given other lessons in Welsh history, sporting, cultural and political, with the aim being to create a complete feeling of Cymreictod (Welshness) across the whole squad.
As Long As We Beat The English
Players and supporters in Wales have to sit through tournament after tournament, seeing England (or other Home Nations) qualify for World and European Finals and never being on the plane.
When The Stereophonics penned the words for a TV rugby trail little did they know that the words ‘As long as we beat the English” would be bellowed out at least once during every 6 Nations rugby campaign. Well those words certainly don’t have much resonance with Wales football fans and certainly not with those going to France 2016.
Wales and England have both found themselves in Group B, alongside Russia and Slovakia. All Wales fans know that beating the English and losing the other group matches is not going to be enough to gain a spot in the last sixteen.
This weekend there will be more than thirty thousand Welsh fans in Bordeaux for the opening match and they know a result against Slovakia is all they need to make an impact in France. The second game in Lens, the so-called ‘Battle of Britain’ is an after-thought at this stage and will be until after the weekend’s games are settled.
In fact to show how confident (and pleased) Wales is as a nation ahead of Euro 2016, just take a look at how many songs have been penned to celebrate and support the team. At last count it was twenty, but alongside the official song by the Manic Street Preachers, there are tracks by The Supper Furry Animals and the FAW’s official stadium ‘house-band’ The Barry Horns.
Born in England – Made in Wales
One in every five people in Wales was born in England and that statistic is also reflected in the Wales squad in the Euros. However there is a strong feeling among many of them who now have families and strong connections, that they are now firmly part of Wales. There are nine players in the 23-man Wales squad born outside of its borders.
Among these is the Wales captain Ashley Williams, born and bred in the West Midlands, he has emerged as a remarkable leader both on and off the pitch at Swansea’s Liberty Stadium. Williams is the stalwart of a team that has retained its place in the Premier League and despite his surname actually qualifies for Wales via his maternal grandfather.
He was released by West Bromwich Albion when he was just sixteen and had to do a variety of odd jobs while playing part-time with non-league Hednesford Town. A fully adopted Welshman, he wears the badge with as much (if not more) pride as anyone born the other side of Offa’s Dyke.
This weekend the streets, cafes, restaurants and bars of Bordeaux are not just full of the Welsh, they are also full of Welsh conversation. Football more than rugby unifies Wales across linguistic lines. Many of the Wales players, including Liverpool’s Joe Allen and Ben Davies of Tottenham are bilingual and regularly use Cymraeg (Welsh) as well as English in media interviews.
This week history was made when Welsh was officially spoken at a Euros press conference. The man who answered those questions in Cymraeg was Osian Roberts, Wales Assistant Coach. A very proud Cymro Cymraeg (Welsh-speaking Welshman) he seems to have his own personal fan-club of thousands, Many of those are from the Welsh-speaking heartlands in north and west Wales, and the majority appear to be travelling and enjoying the delight of footy and France.
Welsh football has made great efforts to use both languages in everything it does – unlike other major sporting bodies – and that has been widely recognised and celebrated.
Y Gymraeg i’w chlywed am y tro cyntaf erioed mewn cynhadledd UEFA @Osian_Roberts @owsllyr @Newyddion9 #Ewro2016 pic.twitter.com/tbxOEryX6U
— Lowri Roberts (@LowriRoberts3) June 7, 2016
This brings us back to Together.Stronger a message that is now always sub-titled with ‘gorau chwarae cyd chwarae’. The message is so good that even the English are trying to nick it with their #TogetherforEngland – hands off you!
So in Wales there’s no need to mimic the British Future campaign and ask our minority communities to show that #WeAreAllWales. Citizens of Wales, those born within her borders or beyond, know that we are all #TogetherStronger and are sharing that commitment across Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
There will be tears inside the Noveau Stade de Bordeaux, across Wales and across the globe when the anthem is sung (in Welsh of course) for the first time at a European Championships. Tears for our “Ei gwrol ryfelwyr, gwladgarwyr tra mad” (“Her brave warriors, fine patriots”) proud in the knowledge that as a small nation, playing on the global stage, we are truly stronger when we are together.