Win or lose today, Welsh football has shown rugby what a national sport looks like

Picture by Jeremy Segrott (CC BY 2.0)

Ifan Morgan Jones

I’ve always preferred rugby to football. I didn’t get much choice in the matter – my grandfather was rugby mad and would always have a spare seat for me at the Millennium Stadium.

I find it difficult to concentrate on anything else in the week leading up to Six Nations game. February and March disappear into a vortex of matches that transport me from the depths of winter to the first warmth of spring.

Football has never inspired the same passion in me, and I struggle to sit through an entire match.

However, I must admit that when it comes to building a national team, the Welsh FA is showing the WRU how it’s done.

It has little to do with anything happening on the pitch, and everything to do with culture, attitude and national pride surrounding the team.

Rugby is more than just a national sport – it’s no coincidence that the rugby stadium is right in the middle of our capital city, while our Parliament is a mile away down in the Bay somewhere.

The sport has become the supreme expression of Welsh national identity. Rugby and Wales have become synonymous.

It’s a shame therefore that Welsh rugby has been, quite deliberately in my own opinion, infused with British symbolism – from the three feathers on the shirt, to the ‘Prince William Cup’, to the man himself as vice-patron.

The pre-match entertainment has a strong military theme. We have a ‘Principality Stadium’, just to remind us that we’re not a real country.

The entire jamboree is geared towards reminding Wales of its place as a contributing part within a wider British nation.

It’s no surprise when there’s little complaint when the long-term success of the national team is sacrificed for a once every four years series to the southern hemisphere.

The only symbols of Welshness, if you can call them that, are daffodil hats and inflatable sheep –  Welsh identity reduced to a cartoonish parody of itself.

There’s also a close, inward-looking mindset. Most of the teams played on loop every year are former British colonies. They’re bound together by their shared Anglo-Saxon culture and a deference to the British establishment.

Even the discourse used to describe Welsh rugby recalls the stereotypes used since the days of the British Empire. The ‘magical’, quick-witted Welsh against the Teutonic, strong-willed English.

Distraction

According to the academic Michael Billing, there are two kinds of nationalism – ‘hot’ nationalism, which seeks to change the current order, and ‘banal’ nationalism, which seeks to keep things the same.

Welsh rugby has become a propaganda vehicle for a know-your-place, ‘banal’ British nationalism.

It’s created the perception that Welshness involves nothing more than pulling on a red shirt  – just another colour in the spectrum of Britishness.

The rugby team however remains rooted in the public psyche in a way the football team, despite their greater success, cannot match.

The main reason for this is that Wales play England at least once every year, and the only time Wales can expect sustained attention in the British media is when their neighbours are involved.

The result is that important issues facing Wales receive little or no attention while Wales’ success and failure as a nation is inextricably bound up in people’s minds with success and failure on the rugby pitch.

It’s a dangerous distraction because it encourages us to blow steam in the wrong direction – usually towards the English Rugby Team –  without doing anything to solve the real economic and social problems facing our country.

This is probably not a problem in the case of countries like New Zealand and Australia, who are already independent.

But perhaps being content to win fake victories on the rugby field isn’t a particularly healthy state of affairs for the poorest nation in western Europe.

Welsh football

So how is the Welsh football team any different? Isn’t it just another sporting distraction?

Perhaps, but at least Wales’ away games take supporters out of familiar surroundings and introduces us to a range of different nations around the world.

In a footballing context, we’re one nation among hundreds rather than just another British colony.

The football team have also put the Welsh language front and centre while it took years to encourage the Welsh rugby union to even bother tweeting bilingually.

There’s also a strong republican vibe. It’s notable that nothing came of the Royal Family’s undignified attempts to attach themselves to the football team’s Euro 2016 success.

The rugby team, one suspects, would have been down to Clarence House before the week was out.

The Welsh FA has also resisted sacrificing what’s best for the Welsh national team for a British team at the Olympics. Again, you get the sense that the WRU would not only have signed up but would have given Chris Coleman a year off for the greater good of managing the British side.

Compared to rugby, the culture surrounding the Welsh Football Team is a breath of fresh air.

In truth, they haven’t even had to do much to make it so. It’s a fan-driven culture that arises naturally from the supporters’ own identity.

The decision to switch off the music and let the fans lead Hen Wlad fy Nhadau tonight is a good example – something the supporters have been calling for.

Whether Wales reach the World Cup in Russia or not, Welsh football has already made us all proud, and showed how us what a national sport looks like.

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