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Auth. n.197 by the Court of Milan on 25th June 2015
THE DRAGON AWAKES
Photos ©Alessio Perrone | MondoFutbol.com
For a place that has just entered history, Cardiff is quiet.
People stroll casually in the centre, among the dragon flags and the red tops, incredulous or unaware.
I’ve waited for this all my life, and now I can’t believe it – tells me Hugh, a 52-year-old fan planning to leave for France. He speaks slowly, looking into the vacuum – It’s like being in a dream.
Yet it’s real: Wales are playing their first major international tournament since 1958—58 years ago. Euro2016 will end a wait older than most of the country’s population. There’s barely anyone alive that remembers Wales’s last game in a major tournament.
Everyone is excited, but we’re incredulous – says Hywel, a musician member of the Barry Horns, a band that has accompanied Welsh football through the years to the recent success.
We Welsh are used to seeing things taken away from us – Hywel says. –
Many times we’ve been so close to qualifying… and then something got in the way.”
The Welsh remember: in 1977, a Scottish handball in the last qualifying game kept Wales out of the World Cup.
In 1993 it was a penalty miss by Paul Bodin. And all remember the 0-1 defeat against Russia in 2003, again at the last qualifying round. So many still struggle believe this time Wales are playing.
Until we see the full stadium, and the whistle blows, we won’t realise. There’s going to be this sense of, ‘Is this really happening? – Hywel says.
But on 11 June, the whistle finally does blow, ending 58 years of agony.
The Welsh anthem is sung in the Euros for the first time in history. And Cardiff explodes.
The whole football nation heats up. Those who could – between 15,000 and 20,000 people – went to France, starting the celebrations even before the debut. Wayne ‘Dibs’ Anderson, who organised buses to France, tells me fans will enjoy it, even though they will travel 2738 miles in a week.
In the many difficult times, we Welsh have learnt to enjoy the football regardless of the results – he says.
The younger fans and those who couldn’t leave huddle in Cardiff, where everywhere are red tops, dragon flags, chants for Wales, and for England (not friendly…). It’s a rare show of Welsh pride, colour and nationalism.
Not bad for a country where rugby – not football – has often been considered the number one sport.
But things have changed: with the recent success, and the development of world-class players like Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale, there’s little doubt football has become the sport of the people.
Despite success is only recent, it isn’t a matter of luck. Neil Ward, CEO of the FA Wales Trust, explains that years of work and dedication of have led to the golden age of Welsh football.
It stems from work we started to do 10 years ago, with additional funding from the FA Wales and the Welsh government – he says.
For over a decade, Wales has been investing heavily in talent development, relationships with clubs, infrastructure, and in promoting football among the people, as a recreational activity.
The result, Euros aside, is that more people play football as a hobby than rugby.
Like success, the passion of Welsh supporters isn’t a coincidence and comes from far away.
Unlike in other countries, where people get together because of football, in Wales it is the other way around.
The nationalism was already there, and football is only a way for the Welsh to show their pride.
Nobody feels English here.
Many people would take a victory over England over Wales reaching the semifinals.
In the streets, all the signs are written in two languages, English and Welsh.
Myreg, a Welsh nationalist and supporter in his 60ies who is about to leave for France, explains that in a sense the Welsh language, football and nationalism are all intertwined: like football, the language is rising after long being the second language – and even borderline dead.
This debut is huge ‘cause we are an oppressed country – Myreg tells me.
He wears a t-shirt with a dragon and the word “Cymru”, the Welsh for Wales. – The English conquered us, 300 years before the Scottish and the Irish.
They tried to suppress our culture and our language. But they couldn’t: we hung onto it in the mountains and now we are spreading it again.
He reiterates they are proud to be Welsh here, in culture as in football.
I’ve been waiting for this all my life – he continues – It’s been a long time, but now we are back.
Wales is back.
And like Wales qualifying, it feels like a dream, Myreg’s dream – but it doesn’t really matter.
At least for the duration of the Euros, it’s pretty to think he’s right.
If you visit Cardiff, don’t miss:
– Cardiff Castle. Built from the 11th century as the Normans conquered England and started raiding Wales, the castle is Cardiff’s most representative building, and a tour will give you an overview of Welsh history through millenniums. If you have time, don’t miss Bute Park behind it, including a 10km walk to Castle Coch.
– The Arcades. The streets in central Cardiff teem with Victorian arcades, home to colourful independent shops and traditional architecture.
– Principality Stadium: Traditionally the rugby stadium, it will host the Champions’ League final 2017.
– Cardiff Bay: The new Cardiff, by the sea. Ideal in days of good weather, it offers traditional buildings as well as the postmodern Welsh Assembly, symbol of the renewed national spirit of Wales.
– Brecon Beacons. A 40-minute drive from Cardiff, Brecon Beacons is one of Wales’s many national parks, offering a view of rural Wales, between meadows, hills, and lots of sheep.
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