The 1950’s are usually cited as the golden age of Welsh football. Players of the calibre of Ivor Allchurch, Cliff Jones and John Charles steered the team to a first-ever appearance in the World Cup finals in 1958, culminating in a heartbreaking defeat to Brazil in the quarter-finals. The talismanic Charles missed the game due to injury. The only goal of the match was scored by some bloke called Pelé as Brazil went on to win the tournament.
For those of us of ‘a certain age’ this achievement was drilled into the memory as decades of near-misses, what-might-have-beens and misery became the default setting for many Wales fans.
Fast forward to now and these are heady times for Welsh football. The dark days of Bobby Gould’s time in charge in the 1990s, notable lowlights including a defeat to Leyton Orient in a friendly and a 7-1 thrashing by the Netherlands, seem a lifetime ago.
The 2-0 win in front of a passionate crowd at the Cardiff City last month secured a place in the Euro 2020 finals, the 2nd time in four years Wales have qualified for the Euros, marking arguably the most successful period in the history of the national side.
The trajectory of the Welsh national movement has also seen a major upswing in recent times. A YouGov poll in September revealed support for Welsh independence is at the highest level ever. Over 40% of people in Wales would support independence if it meant the country could stay in the EU according to the poll. 31% also said they would support Welsh independence if a referendum was held tomorrow.
Welsh Football Fans for Independence unite these two strands and in doing so tap into a youthful, passionate demographic, the majority of whom have never been involved in any form of political activism before.
Since organising their first march for Welsh independence before the game against Denmark last December, Welsh Football Fans for Independence have gone from strength to strength and are now a regular feature of games both home and away.
Following the YesCymru template they are non-party political, passionate about supporting the Wales national team and furthering the case for independence.
Andrew Benjamin, one of the organisers of the group and that first march, says he felt that organising football fans to support the cause on independence seemed an obvious thing to him:
“We already support an independent football nation, it’s just a case of taking that next step politically. Opponents of Welsh independence like to portray Wales as a country full of divisions around language, geography, culture – these so-called divisions just don’t exist following Wales.
“You’ll regularly be sat in airports and bars all over Europe alongside people from every inch of the country, speaking either language side by side naturally, as one supporting our country. This is what’s needed politically.”
Evan Powell from Cefn Hengoed said: “I got into the Independence movement though the football. I remember seeing the ‘No team GB’ banner at the Spain game in the Millennium Stadium which led to me looking into the background of the movement. For the Slovakia game in March, I saw loads of Yes Cymru flags which sparked my curiosity even more.”
Martin Care from Swansea and Dean John from Porthcawl are both long-term followers of the national team. Martin added “ I have always had romantic view of how I would love Wales to be independent, and as someone who has been going to Wales football games since the early eighties, as a child, I always felt the magical feeling and emotion of being in that crowd, that tribal feeling that being a Wales football fan brings.
“Events that have affected me personally over last 20 or so years, caused by politics of Westminster and Cardiff Bay have made me sick of the way things are. I feel that I have given both parties that frequent Westminster more than enough of my time (I was a Labour supporter). I am becoming more passionate about Indy Wales every day. I have many issues that worry me about big change, my partner is very sick and disabled, but we feel ready to look at it as we are so fed up.”
Dean, who has been following Wales since 1984, also feels that supporting the team to supporting independence is a natural progression:
“I soon realised the sense of national identity involved in Welsh football, which has inspired my own political beliefs and sense of patriotism! I have been a supporter of independence for over 30 years and remember writing an article back in school on devolution back in 88/89!
“Since the Scottish Independence and Brexit referendums, I have become increasingly disillusioned with Westminster and have joined Plaid Cymru and Yes Cymru and begun marching with AUOB Cymru and the IndyWalesFans! Back in June, I also wrote an article called ‘How Welsh Football Can Inspire Welsh Independence’”.
Pushing the case for independence while maintaining a non-party political stance can be a tricky balancing act to carry off but Andrew feels they have managed to do this succesfully:
“We have people involved with us that are members of a few different political parties – there’s absolutely no difficulty in any of us working together though. The vast majority of people getting involved with us are not in any political party actually, for many it’s the first political group they’ve been involved with.”
Rhys Roberts from Neath, who describes his political background as mixed added:
“Growing up in a Labour stronghold area, most voted Brexit. I myself sat on the fence but sympathised with the Brexit vote more so.
“If it’s separate to politics I think it’s a good thing. The Welsh independent fans movement is a bit different as we are trying to stir up support for our core beliefs. We’ve all got massively different opinions and ideas regarding politics but we can all agree on independence however way that may be achieved. As for the red wall and enticing Welsh fans to enjoy… Why not?”
In the last year close to 12,000 stickers have been produced and put up in every part of Wales by the group and throughout the football season supporters go to matches, at all levels, every week. Andrew explains: “They take their Yes flags and stickers, nothing too in your face. It usually starts a few conversations and leads to more people becoming aware of the idea of Independence. People need to see the independence movement to know it actually exists.”
It’s the marches to the Cardiff City Stadium before international matches that have been the most eye catching aspect of the group’s campaign so far however and the numbers taking part have increased significantly from the 100 or so supporters that set off for the Denmark game.
Lois Williams from Bethesda was at that march and observed: “Attendances for our marches have leaped in numbers! You visually notice the increase in numbers at every single march. From the ‘typical football fans’ who attended the first march, there are now people from all ages and backgrounds, from young children attending with their parents to the elderly, and a mix of both males and females.”
Evan Powell’s first march was for the game against Azerbaijan: “Womanby street was a sight to behold. I was there with a mate who I never thought to be that big into politics but through talking to people there, he became indy curious leading to him becoming more passionate and confident for independence.
“There was a hefty crowd that day and it obviously had an effect since at the Belarus game a few days later (not a sellout with only 7,666 turning up) there was flags for independence and people joining in with the “Independent Football Nation” chants in Canton. Croatia was even bigger, I think the significance of the game helped bring more people out and Hungary was the best I have seen it, pyro, Red Stripe, a busker with bongos and a feel-good atmosphere.”
Imran Rassid from Menai Bridge, who was also on the first march, acknowledges: “Although a minority still view us as ‘football hooligans’, we’re simply a passionate group of football supporters who all share the same views on gaining independence for Wales.
“The atmosphere created during the marches is sensational. We meet up, have a chat, sing a few songs, simply having a laugh. Credit to all who have put time and effort in organising the marches.”
With qualification for Euro 2020 now secured the hope is that a decent run could again ignite the nation as the campaign in 2016 did.
Dean John echoes that feeling: ”Euro 2016 was incredible. I always thought if we qualified for a major tournament, that the nation would get behind the team and that was right.
“It was a shame we didn’t qualify for the World Cup, but 2019 has not just been a successful year for the Welsh team, but also for the indy-Wales movement and we’ve definitely tapped into that over the past year!”
Andrew in the meantime is hoping to repeat the experience in France four years ago when the 10 days he booked off work to follow Wales turned into a magnificent five weeks and plans are already taking shape for activities around next year’s tournament:
“Right now we’re trying to get as much Independence related stuff out there as possible – thousands more stickers, t shirts, badges, patches and hundreds of flags are on the way. I tend not to do much politically at away matches beyond taking our group flag but many of us are planning to meet in Baku and Rome next summer.
“Be nice to show the world Wales is waking up to independence. Others not travelling to the tournament will be meeting up across Wales to watch together, maybe at fanzones. We’ll look into this in the coming months. If anyone has any ideas please just get in touch.”