In little over three weeks, Cymru will play one of the biggest matches in our modern sporting history. The Cardiff City Stadium (our home and our fortress) will host the play-off final against either Scotland or Ukraine to reach the FIFA World Cup finals for the first time since 1958.
1958? It’s still the monkey on our backs, isn’t it? Yes, we’ve qualified for two consecutive Euros in 2016 and again in 2021 but, make no mistake, the World Cup is a different kettle of fish. It’s the real deal, the biggest single sporting event in the world with an estimated value of $15bn and reaching more than a billion people worldwide.
Held only every four years (for now at least!) between the best 32 nations, its scarcity is a significant component in its success. The last World Cup final in 2018 between France and Croatia attracted more than 1.1bn viewers.
We’ll continue to dine out on Cymru’s Euros semi-final, of course, but the World Cup is the pinnacle, bringing together the world’s finest players from South and North America, Asia, Africa and Europe. It’s momentous and it’s where we need to be.
It would be daft to get ahead of ourselves, of course. Anyone who was at Anfield, Ninian Park or the National Stadium knows better than that, but ‘little ’ole Wales’ is just one step away from joining the world in a global football extravaganza in the tiny gulf state of Qatar this winter.
Whatever our misgivings about the location (and there are plenty), this would be an incredible chance to promote awareness about our nation to the wider world. As I said in a recent British Council report on sports diplomacy, “Sport generates opportunities to engage with people across the globe. It builds the informal networks that create and strengthen formal and official relationships. Sport not only plays a key role in expressing who we are, but also what we stand for politically, as an open and accessible trading partner, a good global citizen with an inclusive and welcoming people.”
I actively dislike the phrase ‘punching above our weight’. Wales’ men are now 18th in the FIFA world rankings. Take a moment to process that – 18th in the world’s most popular sport with easily the biggest reach – in the top 20 of more than 200 nations, ahead of Sweden and Canada and Japan.
Basically, we’re blinking good at football. Cymru should be at the World Cup this year and our failure to get there for 64 years is a blight on our national game.
Now, that isn’t designed to put more pressure on Rob Page and the boys. It’s just that, if I wasn’t an ardent fan, I’d observe that if we can’t beat Scotland or Ukraine at home it means we probably don’t deserve a place at the finals. Sport is a science as well as an art and, while there are upsets, mostly the best teams win.
Rob Page has shaped a Cymru team in his own image – tough, passionate and focused. Throw in the flair of Bale, Rambo, James, Wilson and Johnson and we shouldn’t fear anyone. Scotland or Ukraine, it will be an ultra-high-emotion match, but the bottom line is we’re better than both nations, with more big match experience and an unmatched atmosphere created by the most passionate fans in the world. Short of another Jordan-esque hand ball (and let’s be honest, games are almost always lost on the wider performance not a single incident – remember Dalglish scored a second that night at Anfield), I’m confident that Bale and co will get us over the line.
I had the audacity to raise the matter of football’s status in my 2015 BBC Wales Patrick Hannan lecture. But, I have to say, I’m a bit bored with the rather pointless debates that have ensued in recent months as to which is Wales’ national sport, rugby or football. The silly singularity, lack of nuance and competitiveness is frustrating and a bit pointless.
There are, and always have been, multiple national sports in Wales. Good arguments can be made for boxing, cycling or taekwondo, especially given there’s a powerful gender dimension to sport’s reach and appeal.
Until recently, the two biggest sports – rugby and football – did their best to close their doors to half our citizens. We’ve recently ‘celebrated’ a half-century ban on women’s football, after all. Meanwhile, the WRU belatedly crawled into the 21st century with its overdue offer of 12 full-time contracts to some of the fantastic female players we’ve long had in Wales. This brought fairly obvious and immediate dividends in the recent Six Nations, but “at long last!” or “hallelujah!” would be better responses than hearty congratulations.
It’s not just the men’s World Cup, Cymru’s women’s team faces two massive games in September which are every bit as significant as next month’s. Getting us to a Women’s World Cup is gigantic. It has game-changer stamped all over it. Set aside the money and resources, the unprecedented profile and attention on Sophie Ingle and co will be the biggest catalyst imaginable to grow our game in Wales.
Every young girl will have her eyes opened to our sport and opportunities the length and breadth of Wales to give it a go. We can kickstart a revolution for girls’ football so that the game is entirely normalised and legitimised for both girls and boys, as it is in the USA and Scandinavia. That vision is tantalisingly within sight and I know Gemma Grainger and the players will give every ounce they have in them to get us to Australia and New Zealand.
It might have gone under the radar, but my old Cymru teammate Cheryl Foster has just been confirmed as one of only 12 elite referees chosen to officiate at the UEFA Women’s Euros this July, a tournament set to become the biggest ever. Fozzie was a fine player, but it looks like she’s proving to be an even better referee.
Meanwhile, Cymru legend Jess Fishlock was recently voted MVP (most valuable player) in the US’ National Women’s Soccer League. Her Cymru colleague Angharad James is ripping it up for Orlando Pride out there too. And, last weekend, Cymru’s national captain, Sophie Ingle, won the Women’s Super League – probably the best national league in the world currently – marking more than 150 appearances for the best women’s club in England, Chelsea. Together, Wales’ finest are lighting up the world stage.
I’m really hoping that success on the pitch paves the way for improvements off it. I don’t know anyone who now actively defends the exclusion of almost all bar older white males from football’s governance. We simply have to have different voices from and of our game involved at every level of decision-making.
And this can’t be about getting more diversity just to tick a funding box. There needs to be properly different, constructive but disruptive folk in the board rooms of football. Whilst we’re at it, let’s redefine ‘disruptive’ too and shed it of its always negative connotations. I’m talking about the grit in the oyster, the difficult questions, the constantly constructive challenge. Whatever the industry, this is the safeguard against group think.
We simply can’t continue to value time served over talent. Changing the way our game is run is not just about altering image and perception, it’s about proper modernisation and performance outcomes. For an overwhelmingly results-based industry, football has been lethargic and ponderous in recognising the undisputed link between good decision-making and stronger, sustained performance outcomes.
There needs to be greater demand for change from fans, players and coaches if they want success to be routine rather than sporadic. I’m drawn to the Common Goal project which seeks to forge “a lasting connection between football as a business and football as a catalyst for social transformation” by urging the industry to pledge a minimum of 1% of all revenues to drive radical change.
My friend and former Matildas international Moya Dodd recounted her time on FIFA, football’s world governing body (Moya was one of the first women appointed to FIFA council after 108 years of exclusively male rule). The first advice she received was not to talk too much! You might laugh but, remember, there’s research out there showing that people think women speak far more than we actually do. So, let’s get this right – as Moya put it, “My political survival prospects were maximised by simply doing nothing”. That sounds familiar!
Of course, there are plenty of men and women happy to do just that and keep their heads down. But the best leaders, those up for proper radical reform of their organisations, will actively seek out women (and others) who have both knowledge and experience and are there to agitate for real improvement.
In the annual Royal Society of the Arts lecture, former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard called for a re-evaluation of our understandings of power, moving from seeing it as a binary commodity which is either scarce or abundant. Power is always presented as scarce – a notion that effectively corners women by reducing our routes to authority. It also turns every contest into a battle between women and other women (my election contest for a place on FIFA last year is a perfect illustration of this – two women fighting each other for a single place reserved for a woman while all other power routes were dominated by men).
Sports psychologist Pippa Grange criticises the narrative of change in football, underpinned as it is by “the little idea that the group to whom the game belongs need to ‘make room’ for others, to share what is essentially and historically ‘theirs’ and to do so is the just and fair thing. It is a position based on small nudges to the status quo. It isn’t radical, it’s a concession”.
Hear, hear. Some say change must be driven by collaboration not confrontation and I agree – up to a point. Certainly, we need strong allies from among those who currently hold the reins of power, but this can’t just be about concessions, minor tweaks and nudges. Men need to stop congratulating themselves for manoeuvring a few (mostly) token women into the sporting board room.
Now, I hear some saying that conversations about football governance are a distraction. It’s more important to focus on the line up against Ukraine or Scotland. But, the truth is, sustained success on the field is almost entirely dependent on modernisation off it. We need to stop seeing governance as a bolt on and, instead, see it as something fundamental to sporting success.
I’m loving the massive feel-good factor surrounding Welsh football right now, but none of us involved in the game is conceited enough to think that’s precious or that we haven’t got a lot more to do to make our game one that feels open to everyone. Moreover, sport has its own internal rhythms and, for every high, there’s usually a low. Look no further than Barcelona men right now or Brazil’s 7-1 debacle against Germany in their home World Cup in 2014. Sporting success is fragile without sustainable roots and fit-for-purpose power structures.
Cymru is on the threshold of making football history. To the soundtrack of Dafydd Iwan and Yma o Hyd, every Cymru fan will be giving the boys every ounce of support to get them over the line next month. Then we’ll roll on to the women’s games versus Greece and Slovenia in September.
But, back to where I began – football’s unique status and appeal brings with it a precious and unrivalled power to drive change. Two FIFA World Cup finals appearances will unquestionably raise Cymru’s profile globally and give us an opportunity to sustainably transform our game, at grass roots and elite. World Cup success could also be the platform for change, for Wales to become a diverse, outward-looking exemplar of modern football governance.
* Laura McAllister is a sports-mad academic from Bridgend. She is Professor at Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre and former captain of the Wales women’s international football team.