Six decades and 18 attempts later, the waiting is finally over. Cymru is at a World Cup finals. I was confident we’d get there but, as match day approached, the usual nerves and a few seeds of doubt started to creep in. Surely this wasn’t going to be another Anfield, another Ninian Park or another National Stadium? No, Cymru is at last spelt with a Q.
The last time we graced the finals, a pint cost 10p and Bolton Wanderers beat Manchester United in the FA Cup final. Qualification is the monkey off our backs and, remember, several big footballing nations won’t be in Qatar. Italy’s Verratti, Donnarumma and Chiellini will be doing their Christmas shopping by the time we play England in our final group match.
But qualification has to be just the start. The Euros were transformational but, as Nathan Blake said, “when we played on the street as kids, we weren’t playing the Euros, we were playing the World Cup – we were Brazil and Argentina”.
READ MORE: We asked Dafydd Iwan how he felt about Wales’ glorious Yma O Hyd renditions at World Cup play-off win
More than half the world’s population aged four and over watched the last World Cup final, a tournament that generated more than US$5bn.
Cymru kicks off its first group game on November 21 against USA, a country of 331 million people – we then play Iran (population 86 million) and England (56 million). Our flag – guaranteed to be the most striking of the 32 flying in Qatar, especially as there’s no North Macedonia – our anthem, our ancient language, our country of just over three million people will be under the world’s gaze and we’d better be ready.
Wales will be welcomed at the World Cup, but we want to welcome the world to Wales too. I’ve regularly railed against the ‘small nation’, ‘punching above our weight’ narrative, but our size is an asset in the current context. Iceland, a nation much the size of Cardiff, reaped huge dividends from its World Cup participation last time around.
Cymru is the smallest nation to qualify for the 2022 tournament. We’re currently the smallest nation in FIFA’s top 20 rankings. Small should offer smarter agility and an ability to “get the right people in the room”.
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Wales is an independent football nation and, if this week’s global attention is anything to go by, we can aspire to be the darling participant in the World Cup, everyone’s favourite second team, like Iceland in 2018. There are just 162 days to go and, naturally, most attention will be on who’s in the squad and Rob Page’s tactics to get us out of a tricky but entirely navigable group.
We already know that we need a grassroots football revolution for girls and boys. Community facilities have been described by the FAW CEO as “third world” and I agree. We need serious financial investment generated from much wider collaborations if we’re to capitalise on what our children will be seeing on their television screens this winter.
The potential benefits for football are vast, but so, too, is the potential to generate lasting spin-off success for Wales off the field too. It’s all about that word ‘legacy’, but we need to get our act together and move fast if we are to strategically co-opt sport, supported by our wider cultural offer, as a way of amplifying Wales’ global profile and attract the world to Wales to trade, holiday, invest and study.
The Welsh Government has a relatively fresh international strategy designed to raise our pretty poor international profile – to “use all our cultural assets to maximum effect – our sport, our music, our art, our creative arts, our heritage and history, but also the phenomenal diversity of our communities and people living and studying here”. So, here’s our big chance to put words into action.
In 2020, British Council Wales sponsored a major inquiry into the nature, capacity and potential for improved sporting diplomacy. The report, authored by experts Stuart Murray and Gavin Price, concluded that: “Wales is a small nation with a very large sporting footprint… it has the will, creative energy and the determination to be different. And it has its champions, across all levels of society, from government ministers to academics and primary school PE teachers. The team just needs a sponsor, a captain and a game plan.”
I penned the report’s foreword pleading for Wales to be clear and consistent about how we project ourselves on the global stage, which aspects of our long history and national identity might be utilised for so-called ‘soft power’ gains. Whether it’s our proud, ancient language (remember bilingualism is the norm outside these isles), our green and wellbeing credentials, our magnificent natural landscape with its vast – often untapped – tourism potential and, of course, our culture.
The Cymru football team is setting the pace with its modern, inclusive personality. The world sat up and noticed how the whole nation has embraced the connection between our fans and this team. How at ease Gareth Bale and co are with our language, our culture, our identity. How inclusive the FAW seeks to be, engaging with diverse cultural communities, effectively connecting the local with the national and the global. As Dafydd Iwan’s Yma o Hyd races up the charts, the national team has become the fulcrum of some tremendous creative content with a social media narrative that is changing perceptions of our nation.
A serious, cross-sector investment in sports diplomacy could be the window for the world to look in at a new Wales. We’re far from perfect, but we’ve moved a long way from the hackneyed, outdated and patronising image many global citizens have of our nation. And that’s if they know Wales at all!
A critical factor in our deep-seated and crippling lack of confidence is an identity crisis. Of course, there are plenty of historic reasons for our global anonymity and there’s no need to rehearse the ‘part of England’ experiences we’ve all had while abroad, but let’s accept that reality as our starting point. As the marketing folk would say, Wales has low brand recognition but almost boundless potential.
Therefore, the mystery and intrigue surrounding Wales will be fresh to audiences in Qatar 2022 and this can be conveyed through football. But we’ll need to be bold and ultra-ambitious in how we use the salience of the seductive new Cymru brand.
In our darkest times, the Welsh nation has existed within and without our national borders almost exclusively thanks to sport. Without our national football and rugby teams, the wider nation rebuilding project would likely have fallen at the first hurdle. Sport not only expresses who we are as a nation, it can also articulate what we stand for politically too. That’s why we must use the opportunity of a World Cup held in a state where human rights are routinely abused and there is a selective and often brutal approach to defining full citizenship to show that we are different.
Our narrative needs to be progressive and values-based – of Cymru as a rainbow nation, a good global citizen with an inclusive and welcoming people, an open and accessible trading partner with respect for different languages and cultures. Football can cement our values like community, diversity, excellence, family, humility and equality.
For too long, however, matching sporting objectives with Welsh social, trade or foreign policy objectives has been a story of missed opportunities and under investment in time, effort and resource. It seems to me that we know how to win on the field in a variety of sports. That hasn’t translated into winning off it.
Some of this work might be under way, but it needs far greater urgency and resource if we are to properly capitalise on Qatar 2022. We need a refreshed and more muscular sports diplomacy drive to run over a five to seven-year period that takes us from the Birmingham Commonwealth Games, via the Women’s Rugby World Cup in New Zealand this autumn, via Qatar, via a FIFA Women’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand (hopefully!), via a Rugby World Cup in France and on to a Euros in Germany (with plenty of other sporting events in between).
We should galvanise now around high-level vision, a simple strategy and a timed action plan. This doesn’t need expensive external consultants or months to plan. Time is of the essence and we can’t let perfect be the enemy of good. What does a sustainable World Cup legacy look like, not just for football and sport, but for tourism and culture too?
Kick start it with a ‘Team Cymru’ approach, a whole-of-nation working group, a swift partnership of public and private partners with the emphasis on action rather than words. Ideally sitting outside government, this should be a partnership with significant ‘captains’ to drive a strategic campaign to generate the very best legacy. There are precedents from Ryder Cup 2010 and WOMEX 2013 too.
Each time we do these things, we should be getting better through learning. Every partner from the Welsh sportscape could second a senior lead, someone used to fast-paced working, with a creative eye for opportunities and a commitment to legacy. Cymru Sports International – a partnership model similar to the existing Wales Arts International.
And I’m sure the Secretary of State for Wales will want to get involved. This needs to be Cymru-owned with real ministerial drive from Welsh Government and its officials, but the UK Government should dip its hand in its pocket to ensure that Cymru gets fair treatment from UK funds. We can, at the very least, expect the same influential doors to be opened for us as for our group opponents England.
We should decide on our most opportune markets, using the World Cup group as our first context – our opponents are big enough after all! They will extend beyond the Welsh diaspora to other Celtic cultural diaspora, but also to other groups or sectors with a natural sporting or cultural affinity.
There are opportunities with other cultural diaspora too, such as the broader Caribbean, sub-Indian continent and with refugees. Boundaries are blurring and heritages and identities are naturally now more mixed and porous. By illustration, Ireland discovered that 35% of all Afro-American people also have Irish ancestry and it has recently established a new foundation in New York for Irish Afro-Americans. This could resonate with our BAME communities in Wales too. Australia is another good example as a ‘migrant nation’, making this part of its most recent sports diplomacy strategy, emphasising social inclusion and reconciliation with first-nation peoples.
Then there are minority or indigenous languages connections. Wales is currently building on its global reputation for language transmission – Break Out West in Canada already has a long-term partnership with Focus Wales. It’s worth considering, too, those minority groups with global resonance, for example LGBTQ+ groups, where a light might be shone on discrimination in Qatar and beyond. How about a delegation of our high-profile LGBT champions to the FIFA Women’s World Cup next year to showcase Cymru as a progressive and inclusive nation, or even to the Bingham Cup, the biennial world championships of gay and inclusive rugby in Canada, especially given it’s the Welsh Government’s Wales-Canada year?
We could investigate deploying former players as our ambassadors in tracksuits. Just a thought, but how about Jess Fishlock and Angharad James, along with US superstars Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe and co in the lead up to Wales v USA talking gender equality, inclusion and equal pay? Wrexham’s Hollywood owners would surely be interested in Wales-USA and Wales-Canada relations, especially as the Canadians have also achieved historic qualification for Qatar.
Then there are states like Iceland and New Zealand actively prioritising wellbeing of future generations themes. Our government recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the Basque Country and Wales is a priority partner in the Basque Government’s International Strategy. On top of that there are the global alumni and students from our universities and colleges.
We should look at other small nations’ World Cup experiences. Iceland used its 2018 participation to boost a flagging tourism industry – the chief of their main dairy producer credited the World Cup with driving an increase in Skyr exports to the UK. It seems to me that when ‘minorities’ join forces, they become an irresistible global force.
While some England fans gave Nazi salutes in Munich, Cymru fans embraced our Ukrainian visitors and partied peacefully until the small hours. Now is the time to back ourselves, just as our players have on the pitch.
Cymru’s football brand has more potential than any of our group opponents’, end of. That’s why it would be unforgivable not to do everything we can to maximise the unique opportunities from the World Cup. After all, these don’t come around every day, even though I doubt it’ll be another 64 years’ wait. It will need proper resource and a clear strategy with firm targets. It’ll also require energy, drive and fleetness of foot, along with some entrepreneurial instincts and permission for a degree of risk-taking.
Alongside a fine sporting heritage and a passion for sport woven into the fibre of our nation, we increasingly have industry know-how to build and reach beyond our existing networks and diaspora. With smarter use of our sporting and cultural assets and iconography, there’s potential for Wales to be like Iceland or even to become the European New Zealand, which has drawn on the world-renowned All Blacks brand and Maori Haka.
Cymru has all the right ingredients – we now need to mix them together in the World Cup cauldron to leverage a much-needed boost for our nation. With greater urgency, some meaningful sponsorship, a proper legacy plan and some talented and passionate team captains, we can be as successful off the field as we are on it.