When Wales played their first match of the Euro 2016 football championship, their first international football tournament for 58 years, one fan’s flag read: “Llewelyn 1258, Glyndwr 1404, Ramsey 2016”. And while Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey may not have yet have matched the heroic feats of those two medieval Welsh princes, connecting international football with rebellion against England is not new in the British Isles. In 1936 Scottish fans took to Wembley with bagpipes and a banner carrying the slogan “Forget Flodden and remember Stirling Bridge and Bannockburn”, citing two historic Scottish victories over the English in battle.
The old Home Championship football tournament, which began in 1883, provided an outlet for Scots, Welsh and Irish to prove their equality with England and celebrate their separate traditions without the dangers or arguments of a political movement. At the time, all four teams shared a sense of superiority over the emerging global game, and refused invitations from FIFA to enter the World Cups of the 1930s.
When England did finally enter a World Cup in 1950 they were knocked out in embarrassing circumstances, losing even to the USA, a nation without a professional league. It was the first of many sobering tournaments for English football. The 1966 World Cup aside, international football quickly became another source of popular doubt in a post-Empire, Cold War world where the UK seemed to count for very little.
The other home nations also eventually turned their attention away from the Home Championships, especially after 1966 when full television coverage became the norm and supporters’ eyes were opened to the higher standards that existed in Europe and South America. That year’s World Cup saw England win widespread support across Wales, with some Welsh newspapers even declaring it a British achievement.
Yet matches against England continued to matter, particularly as the dynamics of identity within the UK changed with the growing strength of nationalism in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
While some wondered if international football was actually a safety valve for Welsh and Scottish nationalism, it became a forum where wider tensions were played out rather than just playfully expressed. This was evident in the 1970s struggle to get the Football Association to recognise “Hen Wlad fy Nhadau” (Land of My Fathers) as the Welsh anthem. In 1977, the FA claimed playing it might embarrass the Royal Family and instead offered to make it part of a pre-match medley. This caused much offence and at the match the Welsh players stayed lined up after “God Save the Queen”, waiting for their own anthem which they knew was not coming.
Such tensions did not help the growing hooligan problem and, amid such fears – and security concerns in Northern Ireland – the English and Scottish FAs ended the Home Championships in 1984. Although the decision was not popular among many fans, it had the impact of making matches against England even more significant simply because they were no longer annual.
Scottish fans also developed another way of exerting their difference to England. Whereas in the 1970s English fans gained an international reputation for hooliganism, followers of Scotland consciously cultivated a reputation as friendly and peaceful visitors to overseas nations. The past week has also seen Welsh fans revelling in how the peaceful party they enjoyed around their match in Bordeaux contrasted with an element of English supporters involved in trouble in Marseilles.
The atmosphere in Bordeaux, of course, owed much to it being Wales’ first appearance in a tournament finals since 1958. Watching previous tournaments had often felt like gatecrashing someone else’s party and this was made worse by the assumption of some broadcasters and advertisers that everyone in the UK was supporting England. At the present tournament too, anger has been generated by a perception that some companies and television producers were apparently overlooking the fact that Wales had qualified. This gives the upcoming match against England a cultural significance for Welsh fans that it simply does not have for the English. Even Wales’ star player Gareth Bale has been enjoying questioning the passion and pride of the English side.
Football, like rugby, has allowed the Welsh to exert their identity in the face of internal regional and linguistic divisions and under the economic and cultural shadow of England. It has acted as a vehicle for the Welsh to remind themselves and the rest of the world that they are a nation without having to discuss or agree about what that means in political terms. Indeed, before devolution, with Wales having far fewer national institutions than Scotland or Northern Ireland, it can be suggested that sport was one of the key elements in keeping alive a popular sense of Welshness.
Ironically, the results of the first round of group matches (England drew 1-1 with Russia, while Wales beat Slovakia 2-1) mean this is probably the first clash to matter more to England than Wales. However, while England may need the points more, a win will still have cultural resonances in Wales that simply are not there on the other side of the border. Not all Welsh fans will agree that they are “Welsh Not British”. But all will take particular pleasure in beating the old enemy.