The clocks have just struck 9am and a queue winds its way past Clwb Ifor Bach. Or Welsh Club as some call it.
This location, near Cardiff Castle, has become a second home for football fans from Wales. These three floors are where they go after games.
Friday was where hundreds of people gathered to watch their showdown with Iran: the home front of a revolution that swept away Rob Page’s supporters in Qatar. The relics of Wales’ long road back to the World Cup are everywhere. Above the urinals, where stickers hail the ‘Spirit of ’58’.
Welsh football fans have flocked to support their team across the world in recent years
This World Cup is not going to be planned but there has been an awakening of the country as a whole
And on the backs of fans, where replica shirts trace a timeline through those years of suffering.
The resurgence of Welsh football over the past decade has been a thrilling triumph. Whatever their fate in Group B, it will not shake the red wall or the movement that envelops this team: the seats, the national pride, the sharpened sense of identity, the resurgence of a language and the awakening of a country to large.
“Football (is) almost like a focal point for this growing sense of Welsh in Wales – the growing confidence in Welsh, the growing politicization of Welsh,” says historian Martin Johnes.
Or, as former Wales captain Laura McAllister said recently: “Football is probably the best barometer of where we are as a nation. “The fans have a name for what they have built: Independent Football Nation. Success on the pitch mixed with a new nationalism in the stands.
“I don’t think you can separate football from politics,” says Tim Hartley, who has followed Wales from the doldrums in Doha.
Ex-Wales captain Laura McAllister says football is closely linked to nationalism in the stands
“This World Cup has shown that. Support for Welsh independence has grown in recent years. From 3% in 2014 to around 30%. And so, before the meeting of Wales with England, questions arise: about the future of the United Kingdom. And what role football could play in triggering change.
The success of the past few years gives us enormous confidence as a nation,” says Geraint Thomas of the independence movement YesCymru.
“What do we have to be afraid of? It is also the feeling, politically. We are a small nation but we have everything we need to survive… so why not? It’s kind of an idiom for all of us.
Thomas recalls dark trips across Europe, when Wales’ world rankings were higher than their number of traveling fans. As recently as 2012, some feared the team’s days were numbered.
The brief experience with Team GB football fueled fears that Wales would be subsumed into a British team, dominated by England. An illustration, some would say, of the hand this nation has long been dealt. But then gathered a “perfect storm”.
The results played their part. The same goes for the fans – “a new Welsh culture” has grown up around language, fashion, music and politics with football, in the words of one, “almost a ship”.
But so does the FAW.’ They have been excellent in the way they have developed the brand of Welsh football,” says Thomas. “They wanted to have a deliberate, distinct identity.”
Players learn about Welsh history and culture; language is at the heart of everything. Ben Davies has become the first player to speak Welsh at a World Cup press conference. The FAW is considering renaming the Cymru team. Among these driving costs? CEO Noel Mooney, an Irishman on a mission to master Welsh himself.
Wales face England on Tuesday having picked up just one point so far
They helped normalize the fact that Wales is a distinct nation with a distinct history, culture and language,” says Johnes. They instilled confidence in… being honest about our politics and our past,” adds Thomas, “it gave the people of Wales a connection to them.
Nothing ‘intensified’ change like Euro 2016 – according to McAllister, that summer ‘injected a big dose of national self-confidence that went beyond football’. And nothing epitomizes the moving, if slightly controversial, politics of the FAW quite like Yma O Hyd – a protest song that has become the soundtrack to Welsh football. It was published in 1983 by Dafydd Iwan, a former chairman of Plaid Cymru who was imprisoned several times fighting for the Welsh language. The song (“Still Here”) is an ode to the survival force of Wales. “Despite everything and everyone”, including “Maggie and her crew”.
Chris Gunter added it to the team’s playlist years ago. “It’s a big part of who we all are,” Page said. The FAW have made Yma O Hyd Wales’ official World Cup anthem and released a special music video. Even Iwan admits it’s “politically charged.” There are images of the miners’ strike, of the linguistic demonstrations, of Iwan leaving prison. They were very brave,” adds Thomas.
Admittedly, the video might shock some in England. “I can understand them being surprised because I was,” Thomas says. McAllister, among a group of ambassadors in Qatar to promote Wales, agrees: “It’s not so usual for a sporting governing body to be so overtly political.”
Chris Gunter has added Yma O Hyd to the team’s playlist and the song is politically charged
These three words – Yma O Hyd – also launched a catchy speech from Michael Sheen. The actor, a vocal nationalist who values a “conversation” about independence, spoke to the Page team. But what is not immediately clear: is the FAW driving change? Or riding on them?
“It feels like you’re completely at the epicenter of building social change,” Mooney said. As if we had a chance to build on something that is not just football, but part of the cultural evolution of the country.
Johnes argues that the FAW took latent feelings — “still there but perhaps among a minority” — and helped generalize them. Hartley says they have done their part to “disarm” the Welsh language, which has been resurfacing on the Terraces and beyond for some time.
“It’s in line with the number of fans who see their Welsh – a proud and confident nation,” Johnes adds. “Too often the national institutions of Wales have been a bit reluctant to do this.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that people will inevitably ask themselves: how closely is anti-English sentiment linked to Welsh nationalism?
“I don’t think there’s any anti-English sentiment at all,” says Thomas. Never mind Yma O Hyd, or the climax of Sheen’s speech: “When the English come knocking on our door, let’s give them Welsh sugar!” They always said we were too small, too slow, too weak, too full of fear! Anti-Westminster, not anti-English. This is the crucial distinction. And, make no mistake, independence binds important parts of the red wall. “He’s certainly prominent and vocal and probably more confident than he’s ever been,” McAllister says.
Before matches, ‘Welsh Football Fans for Independence’ march to the stadium; Yma O Hyd is a symptom rather than a cause. Of a “new mood amongst fans where they can see Wales’ success on the football pitch not necessarily reflected in other aspects of Welsh life”, said McAllister.
“It made Welsh football fans more political. “She explains: ‘Football has been instrumental in fostering an independent Wales – I don’t mean politically, I mean an understanding that Wales is a nation in its own right. Especially among younger generations.
“They have no qualms or concerns about Wales being an independent footballing nation – they can govern and manage themselves in other ways as well.”
This crucible was exemplified by the Wales Constitution Commission, which ahead of World Cup matches invited supporters to complete a survey on how the nation should be governed. All of this highlights FAW policy.
“I don’t think you can lay the charge of promoting independence at (their) doorstep,” Hartley insists. But are they doing much to put out these fires?
Football is part of the story of growing support for independence, but that’s not what underpins it,” insists Johnes.
He cites Brexit and the ‘Yes’ movement in Scotland as key drivers. “That means football alone will never provide independence.” And that helps explain why Welsh rugby has never sparked such a change. Not when Phil Bennett allegedly told his teammates in 1977: “We have been exploited, raped, controlled and punished by the English.”
Not during Warren Gatland’s glory years. People weren’t questioning the future of the UK like they are now,” adds Johnes.
On Tuesday, however, just what is at stake? A place in the last 16. “Sport is a strange thing,” says Thomas.
“In some ways, it’s completely unnecessary. But in other ways, it defines nations and a people.