© The Fan Experience Company 2022
World Cup 2022: Wales fans' rise from counterculture to mainstream
Bucket hats are everywhere in Wales. Not just in the crowd when the national football team play – where they are practically uniform – but on schoolyards, city centre squares in statue form and even in hardware shops, hanging incongruously above paint pots and tools.
The distinctive red, yellow and green colours are an emblem of a footballing nation in the midst of its most glorious era; the hats’ ubiquity reflect the team’s unprecedented success.
But it was not always this way. Far from it.
In 1994, only 11 supporters travelled to Georgia to watch Wales get thrashed 5-0 and, as recently as 2011, they languished outside the top 100 in the world rankings.
“We called it the best-kept secret,” says Richard Grigg, one of the 11 in Tbilisi 28 years ago.
Now an estimated 3,000 fans – and that is only those officially accounted for – are on their way to Qatar to follow Wales at their first World Cup for 64 years.
If the tournament was in a more accessible country, the number would doubtless be greater, as evidenced by the 25,000 who were in Bordeaux for Wales’ opening match of Euro 2016.
The seas of red which descended on France that summer embodied a new age for Welsh football, not only triumphant on the pitch but representing a new national confidence away from it.
Wales relished the kind of global attention it had seldom received before and the Red Wall – the name Gareth Bale and his team-mates had given their travelling band of supporters – were recognised with an ‘outstanding contribution’ award from Uefa.
For those who had endured the barren years that preceded Euro 2016, the scenes in France felt like a fever dream.
When Bale, Aaron Ramsey and others were taking their first steps in international football, the sport’s greatest scourge in Wales was apathy, with attendances as low as 4,000 for some games.
Now Welsh football is alive with a thriving fan culture.
A packed Cardiff City Stadium on an international matchday is an exhilarating assault on the senses, a heady cocktail of colour and noise, from the pounding pre-match beats of Zombie Nation to Yma o Hyd, a defiant 1983 folk song by Dafydd Iwan, whose rousing call to arms about the survival of Wales the nation and its language builds to the chorus which translates as: “Despite everyone and everything, we’re still here.”
Where there was once inertia, there is now passion and ritual.
“It’s a carnival atmosphere isn’t it? It’s Yma o Hyd, it’s the anthem, it’s the bucket hats, it’s the jerseys,” says Wales manager Robert Page.
“It’s the music we have before – we try to get as many supporters in the stadium well before kick-off now so that we can create that atmosphere and it’s absolutely worked for us.
“That connection with the supporters. I played for Wales for years and I’ve never had a connection or felt anything like what we’ve got at this moment in time.”
‘Football is probably the best barometer of where we are as a nation’
Page’s experience would ring true with most former players and almost every supporter, save for those too young to remember a time before 2016.
Laura McAllister is a former Wales captain who represented her country between 1994 and 2001 and is now professor of public policy and the governance of Wales at Cardiff University, as well as the deputy chair of Uefa’s women’s football committee.
“If you take where we are now, I’ve never seen anything like it in my life supporting Wales, and I went to my first game when I was three because my grandfather was a big Cardiff City and Wales fan, so it’s always been a big part of my life,” says McAllister.
“It was always an oddity to be a football fan [in Wales] and now it’s so mainstream, the opposite really. The men’s and women’s teams are massively associated with the nation and our perception of it.
“In the past, the connection between the national football team, its fans and the nation was almost non-existent. It was very much a minority pursuit which a small group of people engaged with.
“But I think we’ve come full circle. I think football is probably the best barometer of where we are as a nation, in terms of our self-confidence and our place on the world stage and our own internal perceptions of ourselves.”
Grigg is part of a select group of supporters who have witnessed that transformation up close, having been to more than 80 Wales away matches since attending his first in 1988.
“Even for qualifiers for World Cups or Euros, we had 11 in Georgia and I remember going to Finland and I think it was only 11 of us there as well. It was great fun,” he says.
“When we got to Bordeaux for the first game of Euro 2016, I’d never seen anything like it watching Wales away. It was an amazing feeling.
“Although I do miss the old days and the camaraderie we had, I do enjoy it now and I welcome everyone who comes along. I think it’s fantastic and I hope there will be many thousands going out to Qatar.
“There is a culture to it now, which is different to what it was. It’s much more nationalistic, there’s much more use of the Welsh language in songs and more people speak Welsh.
“I’ve got one friend from Germany who’s been following Wales for years and he’s gone and learnt Welsh now so he can understand everybody.”
Sport has the power to give small countries the kind of platform and global recognition they could only dream of in other spheres.
Wales has enjoyed success in numerous sports, such as rugby union, cycling and various other Olympic events, but none have the worldwide reach of football.
That is why qualifying for successive European Championships was so significant for Wales. Having been absent from major tournaments since 1958, playing at these competitions brought Wales to the attention of new audiences, who may have seen the dragon on the flag or heard the Welsh language for the first time.
The World Cup exists in a different stratosphere to the Euros in terms of profile and global influence. Wales hopes to grasp that opportunity in any way possible, so there will be a delegation from the Welsh Government – including First Minister Mark Drakeford – in Qatar.
And the country’s most visible ambassadors in Doha will be its fans, red-shirted and bucket-hatted, revelling in their own proud interpretations of what it means to be Welsh.
“The World Cup gives us a massive opportunity, not only for how we use it in terms of the sport but also for our own crippling lack of self-confidence – because that is still there,” McAllister says.
“If we can connect the real sense of engagement around national identity in football with the wider environment around the whole nation, I think that could be a real fillip and a real boost to the way we see ourselves.
“We’re putting a lot of pressure on football by saying that. Football doesn’t owe the rest of the nation anything, despite our grand proclamations.
“But this is a moment, without doubt, where we’re at the absolute peak opportunity for showing we’re a successful nation. Traditionally when you look at Wales, people quote us being at the bottom of league tables, whether that’s in education or health, without ever contextualising that with history, demographics and economics.
“In football, we’re at the top table, we’re going to a World Cup for the first time in 64 years and we’re competing in our own right against nations that are largely much bigger and more successful than us economically and internationally. It will be a moment when the distinctiveness of Wales is projected to the world.”
To gain a deeper understanding of the “crippling lack of self-confidence” which McAllister says has afflicted Wales, it is worth delving into the country’s history, specifically in the 13th century.
“The truth is Wales was conquered,” she explains. “It was annexed and conquered, and then assimilated and the things that distinguished us were suffocated.
“That sounds terribly nationalistic but it’s the truth – a historical truth. People don’t like hearing it put in that tough old way but it’s true.
“There were attempts to end the existence of the Welsh language, attempts to end the distinctiveness of religion in Wales, attempts to end the distinctiveness of education, so the symbols of Welshness, sporting symbols, are more important to us.
“The language is really important and that is something that has been well understood by football, the FAW [Football Association of Wales] and indeed the players.
“You look at the men’s and women’s squad and there are some Welsh speakers but not that many – they’re quite a small minority – yet the whole of the squad embrace the importance of using Cymru [the Welsh word for Wales] and Yma o Hyd or the anthem.
“You’ve got the emblems of Welshness – y ddraig goch [the red dragon], Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau [the national anthem], Yma o Hyd, which will no doubt be the anthem of the terraces in Qatar.
“Everything about us as a nation will be on display, and I don’t think you can quantify how powerful that will be.”
‘From counterculture to mainstream’
Wales have harnessed those emblems of Welshness, embracing the key motifs of the team’s fan culture and making them cornerstones of the FAW’s World Cup strategy.
Wales’ official song for the tournament is Yma o Hyd, with elements re-recorded and mixed with the voices of supporters. Most striking, however, is the accompanying video, packed with powerful archive footage of some of the most significant moments in Welsh history, from the Tryweryn drowning to pro-Welsh language protests and the closure of coal mines.
Released just days after Fifa president Gianni Infantino implored World Cup teams to keep politics and football separate, the video is a bold and unapologetic declaration that there is no separating Wales from its turbulent past.
National pride and history were central to Wales’ squad announcement as well. While United States head coach Gregg Berhalter named his at the Empire State Building – which was lit red, white and blue for the occasion – Page went back to his hometown in the Rhondda Fach valley.
The former Wales centre-back revealed his 26-man squad at Tylorstown Welfare Hall, the last remaining miners’ welfare hall in the area and a five-minute walk from his childhood home.
The day felt more like a festival than a squad announcement, with Page visiting a primary school in the morning, taking questions from pupils and joining in with training sessions. On the halfway line was a giant inflatable bucket hat
Everywhere you look in Wales, there are symbols of the team, its fans and all they represent.
“It’s not counterculture anymore. It’s become sort of mainstream now,” says Ryan March, who runs the Alternative Wales fanzine and will be among the Wales supporters in Qatar.
“We were in Clwb Ifor Bach [a nightclub in Cardiff] after the Poland game [in the Nations League in September] and I saw a group of girls, students of 18 or 19 years old, wearing Wales tops and I remember thinking, when I was in university the thought of seeing any young girl in a Welsh football top was absurd, even on a football night.
“Now people want to be involved in it, which is amazing. I’m not one of those who wants it to be like the old days – I enjoy it more now than I used to. The more the merrier, it’s a positive Welsh culture.
“We’re not like any other nation. It’s special and I’m glad I’m a part of it because it’s forged who I am.”
The same goes for Wales’ players, whose bonds with each other – and their fans – has prompted Bale to describe the team as a “band of brothers”.
While their success on the pitch has helped attract legions of new followers, it is also true that the Red Wall’s vibrant support has had a tangible effect on the team, dragging them through difficult moments as well as celebrating their triumphs.
“Everyone looks for something in their life that makes them feel part of something, whether it’s music or film or whatever, people have their communities and in football I found mine at a young age,” says March.
“It’s not just about 90 minutes on the pitch, it’s the people and what you do around it, and I think Wales do it better than anyone.
“We used to say it was the best-kept secret and now the secret is out. Even if we don’t qualify for future tournaments, obviously crowds will drop naturally but it will never get back to what it was in the late 2000s when people were apathetic.
“That indifference is more damaging than anger. We’ve got something now and it will take a long time for it to disappear.
“The supporter culture hasn’t happened because of the success. The success has helped, definitely, but the FAW has helped and the supporter culture has helped the FAW as well.
“You can’t point to one person, there have been so many unsung heroes such as Ian Gwyn Hughes at the FAW, Gary Speed and fans like Tim Williams [founder of clothing range Spirit of 58]. He’s such a humble bloke and he’s created a phenomenon.”
There is more to Williams’ clothing range – named after the year when Wales were last at a World Cup – than bucket hats, but there is no doubt they have become the signature look of the Red Wall abroad.
In Qatar, they will be ubiquitous once more.
“You can spot Welsh fans just from their bucket hats,” says Grigg. “You don’t see any other team looking like that.
“You see thousands of people wandering down the streets wearing their bucket hats, singing Yma o Hyd – that is some culture.”