Late British historian Eric Hobsbawm once put his finger on the significance of major soccer tournaments like the World Cup. “What has made football so uniquely effective a medium for inculcating national feelings,” he wrote in his 1992 book “Nations and Nationalism,” “is that the … imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of 11 named people.”
There’s a powerful truth there: More than any other sport, soccer is the global game and, as such, a fulcrum for all sorts of political symbolism and myths of belonging. The players that make up the squad of a given country invariably come from a cross-section of society, often emerging from poorer, more hardscrabble backgrounds to win global fame and fortune. For the countless millions of people who cheer them on, they shoulder a heavy burden. These “11 named people” embody a nation’s yearning for prestige and anxiety over failure.
There are few more binding scenes of national identity than when the stars of a country’s team line up on the field before the start of the match, their faces strained by emotion as fans in the stands roar along to the national anthem. The spectacle constantly repeats at World Cups; what could seem cringeworthy and jingoistic in other contexts becomes a powerful ritual here. Consider the crescendoing intensity of the Italians on the way to winning it all in 2006. Or the irrepressible fervor of the Chileans in 2014. Or the moment of startling vulnerability in 2010 when North Korea’s top forward broke down in tears as the isolated pariah state’s patriotic hymn blared.
This year, all eyes — and ears — will be trained on an unlikely team: Wales. The country, which, like the other “home nations” that make up the United Kingdom, participates independently in a number of sports. Wales has not been to the World Cup since 1958. Successive generations of Welsh teams, including a number of legendary talents, have tried and failed to qualify for the tournament. But by sheer force of will and no small amount of skill, Wales finally made it this year and will kick things off against the United States on Monday.
“For a nation of 3 million people to be on one of the greatest sporting stages in the world is hugely significant for the people of Wales who have been waiting 64 years for this to happen,” said Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford, the top political official in the country.
Their arrival in Qatar has been made all the more tantalizing by the group in which they will compete — after the Americans, Wales plays Iran and then its neighbor, England. They will be considerable underdogs in that last game, but the storylines are already crackling with tension and drama. The Welsh actor Michael Sheen recently delivered a rousing monologue that went viral, scoffing at a long history of the English discounting and bullying the Welsh while declaring a “red storm is coming to the gates of Qatar.”
Sheen’s bravura led to the resurfacing of a political lecture he delivered half a decade ago in the wake of the British vote for Brexit, where he lamented the country’s deindustrialization and rural decline, the waning of its coalfields and ironworks, the legacy of bitter mine strikes in the 1980s and how “the dazzling promises that the offer of Britishness made seemed to ring ever more hollow with each passing budget day.”
The story of Wales’s place at the World Cup is inseparable from its own fitful journey as a nation without a state. “The rise of Wales as a European football force over the past decade or so has also coincided with the nation’s reemergence from decades if not centuries of political and cultural suppression, much of it self-inflicted,” wrote The Washington Post’s Dave Sheinin. “The two trendlines are practically interchangeable: As the team’s success embodies the rise of Welsh nationalism, the citizenry’s thirst for outside affirmation of its unique Welshness has become wrapped up in the sporting fortunes of a couple dozen soccer players.”
Opinion polls show that pro-independence support in Wales is still a minority concern, though sentiment in favor has grown considerably in recent years. Political devolution at the end of the 1990s delivered Wales a greater degree of autonomy and self-rule via its own elected legislature. But Welsh nationalism was not just about political rights, but cultural identity, with generations of activists and campaigners struggling to preserve and expand the usage of the Welsh language.
Sheinin spotlights the efforts of Dafydd Iwan, a folk singer who became one of the most prominent figures in this battle. Before a crucial qualifier match against Austria, Iwan was brought out to sing “Yma o Hyd,” whose rousing chorus in Welsh translates to “In spite of everyone and everything, we are still here!” A “red wall” of Welsh fans sang with him, and joined him again when Wales defeated Ukraine to clinch its spot in Qatar.
“When they joined in,” Iwan told The Washington Post, “it was like a powerful force. There was so much passion in the singing, I couldn’t resist crying. … I’ve been singing that song for 40 years, and it’s almost as if I’d been rehearsing for this moment.”
Iwan — who had been arrested multiple times as a Welsh-language rights activist in the 1970s and led Plaid Cymru, a Welsh independence party, between 2003 and 2010 — wrote the song in 1983 at a time when Wales was grappling with the crushing weight of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberal agenda. Iwan conjured a message of courage and resilience, hailing Wales’s survival through the predations of the Roman empire to those of the Tories in Westminster. When it was sung in Cardiff by tens of thousands, it marked a kind of watershed moment, a new era of Welsh identity and politics.
“I can see how from the outside it would seem absolutely astonishing” to locate in the national soccer team such a depth of meaning, Delyth Jewell, a member of the Welsh parliament, or Senedd, told Sheinin. “But what has been actually quite revolutionary is that because of the football team’s success and the fact they have embraced that song, it shows that the Welsh nation has matured so much, in terms of being comfortable with itself and embracing the language, as well.”