There and back again, small is beautiful: Football Tales for an Independent Wales
“Wales Away, I like it” we say. I’ve been lucky enough to follow the national team for over two decades now. It has taken me from the incredible geology of Iceland to the desert heat of Qatar.
From the micro-nations of Andorra, Liechtenstein and San Marino to the mighty Russia in the east and the European powerhouses of France (and that near-perfect summer) and Germany.
For me, it hits that ‘sweet spot’: cheering on our boys (or girls) and following the fortunes of our team come what may; the thrill of travelling and visiting new cities and countries across Europe and beyond; and representing Cymru (Wales) abroad.
We are proud Bucket Hat ambassadors, promoting our nation and flying Y Ddraig Goch wherever we go. Due to our unique political and constitutional status, sport provides us with a rare opportunity to be Cymru abroad. We have a strong sporting platform but not a serious political platform. We don’t exist on many maps, and have bizarre and surreal conversations with locals:
“Yes we’re a nation, like yours…No, most decisions are taken elsewhere, in London…we have something that’s called devolution, so we have some freedom to make decisions for ourselves…no we don’t have a Prime Minister but we have a First Minister in Cardiff…yes we play as Cymru in football and rugby…no in the Olympics we’re part of Team GB, although every four years we can participate as Cymru in the Commonwealth Games…no, in cricket we’re Englandandwales…we love Gareth Bale too…yes it’s all very confusing…”
Much is made of our small size and poverty when it comes to the debate around independence. Many of us in the ‘Y Wal Goch/The Red Wall’ laugh whenever we hear the ‘Too small! Too poor!’ argument against independence. Following Cymru takes us to similar sized nations who prosper and do ok for themselves with independence.
With our 3.1m population, Cymru is ranked 34th in the European countries by population list. This places us above Albania, Armenia, Latvia and Estonia, countries that we have visited in recent years. Our €93.1Bn GDP places us in 23rd place in the European countries by GDP list, between Slovakia and Bulgaria, and ahead of Croatia, Lithuania and Serbia.
And that’s our GDP within the Union, which prolongs the extraction economy and takes our resources away for the benefit of elsewhere. How many of these countries would swop places with us for a resource that we have in abundance: water.
The ’Too small! Too poor!’ argument really doesn’t add up. It’s interesting whether there is a correlation between the general outlook of Wales Away supporters – more left leaning, indycurious or passionately in favour of independence, no or weak affiliations to the Union and the Monarchy – and the travelling opportunities that UEFA football provides.
Fifty four nations spread out over an entire continent and beyond, a dazzling combination of cultures, languages, faiths, architecture and geography stretching from Reykjavik to Astana.
Measuring the ‘success’ of a country isn’t restricted to GDP and economic figures. The happiest countries in the world are Finland (population 5.5m), Denmark (population 5.9m) and Iceland (population 375k). Denmark and Finland also top the least corrupt countries in the world together with Norway (population 5.4m). Cymru’s unemployment rate of 3.8% is lower than Slovenia (4.1%) and higher than Iceland (3.5%).
The best and most generous pensions in Europe include Luxembourg (population 654k), Bosnia-Herzegovina (population 3.2m) and Cyprus (population 1.2m).
Smaller nations are doing well, and doing it for themselves. There is a perception amongst some that we should look down on ‘poor’ nations such as Montenegro, Albania, Latvia and Armenia. But anyone who has been lucky enough to follow Cymru in recent years will have seen the beauty of Podgorica, Tirana, Riga and Yerevan.
How their parks, streets and public buildings are clean, well maintained and protected. How their public transport functions. Again, doing well and prospering despite their modest size and status.
By the end of March we’ll know Cymru’s footballing destiny. Whether we’ll be joining Europe’s biggest party in Germany in June for Euro 2024. A fourth opportunity to play at a major tournament in recent years. Another opportunity to showcase and promote Cymru in a way that the Welsh Government could only dream of. And we’ll also know our Nations League destinations in the Autumn.
Whilst the Wales Away veterans will pray for Kazakhstan (certainly not small, and not in Europe), many of us will also be keeping our fingers crossed for a visit to Slovenia. A small and beautiful nation of 2.1m people, full of lakes and mountains and prospering with EU membership.
Slovenia offers a glimpse of what Cymru could be: making its own way, charting its own course and freed from Belgrade governance.
There are Unionist politicians in the Senedd who sneer at the independence debate. It’s ‘whimsical…stuff of fantasy…pigs might fly’ and so on. They only view it through the prism of loss: farewell DVLA in Swansea, the Royal Mint in Llantrisant, the Passport Office in Newport.
Not once do they recognise that an independent Cymru would require Ministries, national agencies and all the other elements that an independent, self-governing nation requires for its infrastructure. Yes, they have a functioning health service in Ireland. Yes, they have an effective public transport network in Estonia. Yes, they have efficient emergency services in Georgia.
If these countries can do it, what in the world is stopping us from doing the same and improving the lives of our population?
A plea to those who snigger, sneer and laugh at the independence debate in Cymru. Join Y Wal Goch/The Red Wall on a trip abroad. Open your eyes and minds to the possibilities. In a way that rugby and the Six Nations can’t offer, take yourself off the beaten track and head to the Baltics, Balkans or Caucasus region.
Small, lean and agile nations doing well and prospering with their own governments. Not one of them hankering for the return of Moscow, Belgrade or London rule. We can match them on the football field, but off the field we’re no match. As things stand.
Last week the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales concluded that independence for Cymru is ‘viable’. The report makes international comparisons and good practice examples that an independent Cymru could adopt e.g. a simplified tax system in Estonia, engaging with citizens to draft constitutional and governance principles in Iceland.
Whilst the current Welsh Labour leadership election offers a predictable promise of more of the same and a tepid fight for further devolved powers, there are brilliant and innovative examples in terms of smart and effective governance in Dublin, Tallinn, Ljubljana, Valletta and elsewhere that we could and should look at for a prosperous independent nation.
It’s high time to challenge Cymru’s ‘sporting dragon, political amoeba’ narrative. This isn’t as good as it gets. If we want, we can be so much more than our current predicament of poverty, deprived communities, humiliating public transport, job losses fuelled by Brexit and hoping for more crumbs off the Westminster table to fund our ever-dwindling public services. And we have a rich tapestry of small, confident and thriving European nations to call on for help, advice and support through football and bucket hat sporting diplomacy.
Iwan Williams is from Llandysul and now lives in Bangor. A Cymru supporter since 1989, he is a Wales Away regular since 2003.
Support our Nation today
For the price of a cup of coffee a month you can help us create an independent, not-for-profit, national news service for the people of Wales, by the people of Wales.