I watched Wales’s second game of the World Cup at Clwb Ifor Bach, Cardiff. The same venue I saw the Strokes, Afrika Bambaataa and Roots Manuva play in my 20s, but there has never been a headliner at Clwb like Wales v Iran. As I walked through Cardiff city centre last Friday morning I saw pubs fill and football fans greet each other, alongside office workers purchasing that pillar of the 21st-century Welsh economy, the Boots Meal Deal. People having a pint at 9.35am because Wales are playing in the World Cup against opposition we haven’t met since 1978. We have always wanted this.
After the 1-1 draw with the USA in the opening game, fans hoped for a repeat of Euro 2020: a nervy stalemate in the first match against Switzerland followed by Bale and Ramsey rolling back the years to outclass Turkey and see us reach the last 16; Gareth and Aaron adding to the evidence that there are in fact two real Princes of Wales. We were all to be disappointed. A deserved win for Iran as a lacklustre Wales cracked in the final two minutes of stoppage time. Even a victory in the final group game may not be enough.
And so, on to England. Many, if not most, of our fans were disappointed when we were drawn in the same group as our next-door neighbours. If the European Championship is about big international derbies and the continent’s heavyweights being pitted against each other, part of the World Cup’s allure is new teams, strange fixtures, different experiences, something that can’t be provided by the familiarity of Luke Shaw and Mason Mount. Before last Monday night the only competitive games Wales had played against non‑European opposition were against Mexico and Brazil in 1958. Declan Rice was not part of the plan in this global festival of football.
Seeing such recognisable faces on the pitch is jarring at a major tournament, lending a Sky Super Sunday feel to a game taking place in a different time zone, both on and off the pitch. Some countries in South America might have a bigger problem with hooliganism. German fans might be more organised, the phenomenon of the tifo might make the Italians more colourful. But when it comes to one of the most dreaded sights and sounds in football, the synchronised jeer and outstretching of arms culminating in a wanker sign as the opposition’s best player drills a goalscoring opportunity wide of the post, England fans are undoubtedly world class. As seasoned watchers of the Premier League, we are acutely aware of the talent Gareth Southgate has at his disposal. Wales need to play with the handbrake off. We’re hoping England don’t do the same.
England and Wales in football is a strange rivalry. We share a border but the English are more bothered by Germany, France or Argentina, and historically Scotland. It lacks the class element of rugby union, where English former public schoolkids take on the largely state-educated working‑class Wales team. What it does share with rugby union is an imbalance of resources. England is a country of 57 million people. Wales has a population smaller than that of the east Midlands. Among football fans there is far less of the “as long as we beat the English” attitude that has been prevalent in Welsh rugby, something that makes more sense when a sport’s primary focus is an annual European competition played between the same six teams.
Wales haven’t beaten England at football since 1984, in the final season of the much-maligned British Home Championship. A 20-year-old Mark Hughes, with the fresh face of an angel and thighs of a powerlifter, scored the winner just 17 minutes into his debut, in the final year of a tournament that provided the Football Association of Wales with an enormous amount of its annual revenue, but that the English (and Scottish) FA no longer wanted to play. Since then, it has been played six, lost six.
There was a very British element to Welsh football when I started going in the 1990s. Like today, lots of our fans supported English teams. A lot of the songs we sung were the same. The four big Welsh clubs – Cardiff City, Swansea City, Newport County and Wrexham – were fully signed-up sufferers of the “English disease” and had significant hooligan problems. But this has changed substantially since I first fell in love with following Wales in 1990.
The FAW has announced it would like the team to be known as Cymru, rather than Wales. Our fans now sing in Welsh and English. If part of the aim for this World Cup was to raise the profile of Wales globally, it actually helps we’re playing England.
No one can be forgiven for thinking we’re not a country in our own right any more. Our cricketers represent England (and Wales). Our athletes compete in the Olympics for Team GB. International football matters because it tells the world that Wales exists, in a sport that globally is more popular than democracy. Tom Jones might have been introduced on stage in America as a singer from England, but no one is under any illusions as to where Gareth Bale is from. Our greatest player is now under huge pressure to provide us with one more moment of magic.
Apart from the rare occasions we’ve been drawn against England in qualification campaigns, or in the group stage of Euro 2016, our paths haven’t crossed very often since 1984. We have more historical grievances with Scotland, having failed to qualify against them for the 1978 and 1986 World Cup finals. We have been drawn so often against Belgium in recent years I am now more familiar with their starting XI than I am with some of the CDs I still keep in my glove compartment. But we need to beat England in Doha to stand any chance of progressing at this tournament. Winning against a team we have beaten 14 times since 1879, in our first World Cup finals for 64 years. It’s just another game.
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.