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Wales Online
Wales Online
Laura McAllister

Wales takes first steps onto global stage despite World Cup disappointment

The celebrations in Buenos Aires this week were spectacularly loud and life affirming. It felt like every man, woman and child came out to welcome the Jules Rimet trophy back to Argentina after 36 years. Argentina has a politics and an economy that make the UK’s look calm and stable – conspiracies, assassination attempts, corruption and near 90% inflation. But they also have Lionel Messi, probably the most unique, magical and entrancing player of our generation.

The World Cup final was a fitting end to a glorious tournament – on the pitch at least. For aficionados, the final was the most wonderfully rhythmic of games, one that started slowly (at near walking pace for France), but which unfolded into a classic, shaped by individual courage and resolve and glorious technique and skill.

Last week I gave the annual Political Studies Association lecture, “Back of the Net: How Sporting and Political Goals Collide and Contradict” – an appropriate title for an appropriate time. Fifa had always banked on a good tournament on the pitch to, at least partially, distract attention away from the swathe of negativity around Qatar, especially its record on human and workers’ rights.

It needs saying that this was meant to be the Fifa World Cup in Qatar, not the Qatar World Cup. That is far more than a matter of semantics. Fifa chooses the host nations and, until we embed a much stronger code and better, entrenched expectations around the rights and respect for all citizens, Fifa’s slogans on equality – that “the whole world is welcome” to its tournament – sound shockingly hollow.

So Fifa can paint its Zurich headquarters rainbow coloured for the whole of Pride month but, in Qatar, it shamefully failed in one of its most fundamental duties to protect fans’ rights, in this case to wear the clothing of their choice into football stadia.

READ MORE: Gareth Bale and team-mate named in 'Worst Team of the World Cup' as brutal ratings dished out

Remember, just 48 hours before the tournament started, the Qataris scuppered Budweiser’s £60m contract with Fifa to sell its beer at the match stadia. Hardly an act of good diplomacy but, as Guardian columnist Barney Ronay said, Qatar didn’t need to be liked, it just needed to be visible. Never mind your soft power, this is proper hard power and the Qataris didn’t half prove who was in charge - and it wasn’t Gianni Infantino.

Being at this World Cup felt like a parallel world, strolling through a weird adult sporting Disneyland. Having said that, I know how much most fans who went to the oil-rich emirate enjoyed the tournament experience, I was one of them. A World Cup in such a confined, single city environment with 31 sets of colourful, joyous fans with which to mix was a unique experience.

But, as former US World Cup winning goalkeeper, Briana Scurry said: “When you choose the country, you choose the consequences.”

The problem with this World Cup is no one in football or outside properly owned the consequences of a World Cup in Qatar.

That’s why I’ve written my last column of 2022, not about the football in Qatar but about what Wales got from the World Cup off the pitch. It’s certainly fair to say that this was a curate’s egg in terms of impacts on and off the pitch. We didn’t show what we’re capable of playing wise and that’ll always be a massive regret for the players, the coaches and we fans alike. But “Together Stronger” applies in defeat as well as in victory. I’m most definitely not from the school of thought who thinks Wales should simply celebrate being there – that’s the mindset of losers who regard size as a precursor to clever strategy and smart investment. Our ambition must be to emulate Denmark and Croatia to almost always be there, especially with 48 finalists in the next World Cup in USA, Mexico and Canada and at time to progress much further.

Regardless of how we played, I will always treasure the emotions of standing with old friends (with some of whom I went to France ’98 and recall sitting in a bar in Nantes wondering wistfully whether we would ever see Wales at a World Cup). Then there we were, singing our national anthem at the 2022 World Cup, seeing our flag flying on stadiums, buildings and hotels, chatting tactics and formations with fans from Morocco, Japan and Argentina.

But what about the rest of our ambitions for Cymru at its first World Cup for 64 years?

Back in June when we beat Ukraine to qualify, I wrote in this column: “We need to get our act together and move fast if we are to strategically co-opt sport, supported by our wider cultural offer, as a way of amplifying Wales’ global profile and attract the world to Wales to trade, holiday, invest and study.”

Now, I’ve been a critic of Welsh Government over the years (mostly in the spirit of positive challenge I like to think!), but praise where praise is due. Our government played a blinder. I can’t think of anyone who would not have preferred the World Cup to be elsewhere and the Welsh Government was criticised for its presence in Qatar. But there needs to be a proper reality check here. Keir Starmer announced he was boycotting England’s games in Qatar, but his position was fundamentally different to his Welsh Labour colleague, First Minister Mark Drakeford. The latter was the most senior elected politician in a nation that qualified independently. So, if Mark Drakeford had caved in to pressure from his political opponents, Cymru would have been represented by James Cleverly and I know which I would prefer.

Remember, successive UK governments have shown little enthusiasm for economic or military sanctions, visiting Qatar and elsewhere on a regular basis helping to bankroll the economies of the Middle East. We have long-established government offices across the Middle East. Each time we switch on our central heating or our gas cooker in Kenfig Hill or Caernarfon, we’re increasingly depending on Qatari gas running through those pipes. Meanwhile, the RAF has a joint Air Force squadron with Qatar, the only joint squadron with anyone since the Second World War! Qatar submitted a bid to expand its LNG terminal capacity in Milford Haven whilst Wales were still at the World Cup. This will provide a lifeline for extra gas imports to compensate for losses from Russia, now understandably isolated from the lucrative European gas markets. The result of this is 25% additional capacity for Qatari-brokered gas sales to the UK, money, which of course will flow directly back to the Qatari regime.

Clearly, one wrong doesn’t justify another but we should – at the very least – confront our complicity and culpability in creating the political conditions for Fifa to award World Cups, not only to Qatar but to South Africa, Brazil and Russia in the past, and I’d say likely Saudi Arabia in the future. Plus, for those who argued for a boycott, they should at least go back to their diaries to check that they raised their voices similarly and consistently over decades of political involvement in equally heinous regimes. In the meantime, selective disgust and displays of favouritism feels like some weird reverse beauty contest for tyrannical, discriminatory and often brutal regimes. That’s not a good look, whether from opposition political parties or those who were happy to watch the games from the comfort of their living rooms.

Five billion people across the world were glued to this World Cup. Wales’ presence was historic and momentous. Our flag flew alongside Brazil’s, Japan’s and England’s, there was a real affection for our anthem and especially the way it was sung, as well as for the cultural activities arranged in Qatar. This awareness is absolutely critical for the economic, and especially the trade activities of a small nation like ours. In football at least, it’s no longer a case of “For Wales, See England” and credit should be given to our government for acknowledging a gift horse when it was staring them in the face.

The World Cup was the crème de la crème of marketing and sports diplomacy opportunities – a chance to introduce Wales to a new audience, inviting them to learn more about us, our culture and our people. The Welsh Government laid down four key objectives for the tournament: the promotion of Wales; projecting our values; ensuring the safety of Welsh citizens at the tournament; and securing a positive and lasting legacy.

We started from the position that Wales has low brand recognition but almost boundless potential. As a direct result of our World Cup campaign – and maybe the odd rainbow bucket hat story [winking emoji] – there have been 591 pieces of global media coverage about Wales spanning the USA, Spain, France, Qatar, UAE, India, Italy, Canada and the UK of course. The reach of this coverage is 3.7 billion which is significant by any standards.

By the way, only those with their own agendas would suggest that any of us thought we could change Qatari culture or its laws on homosexuality and migrant workers. Rather, the actions of Wales fans and others there were about something more intrinsically modest. It was about being ourselves, demonstrating our values and principles and stimulating the conversations with anyone prepared to engage. Our rainbow bucket hats were symbols of Wales’ commitment to inclusion and equality, no more and no less, but for that very reason vital to keep proudly on our heads.

This all felt like a proper Team Wales approach. There was a willingness to move swiftly and smartly (something governments are often criticised for failing to do). The Welsh Government quickly brought together partners including the FAW, the British Ambassador in Qatar, Sport Wales, BBC, S4C, Urdd, Global Wales, Arts Council Wales, Wales Arts International and Amgueddfa Cymru, who worked closely together to maximise the platform the World Cup provided.

Together with Olympic silver medallist Colin Jackson, DJ and presenter Katie Owen, and celebrity Michelin-starred chef Bryn Williams, I was honoured to be part of “Lleisiau Cymru/Welsh Voices”, a team of Cymru ambassadors who travelled to Qatar to act as spokespeople in the drive to take Wales to the world. Together with the FAW ambassadors, star players Jess Fishlock and Ian Rush, we were on duty throughout, championing all that is good about Wales.

We were given a unique global platform to show what Wales is all about; a small, smart nation, an inclusive, green and diverse one focused on well-being and sustainability, a bilingual country that welcomes the world and treats human rights as non-negotiable.

The Welsh Government focused its marketing campaign on target international and domestic markets including the USA, key European markets, the UK and Qatar itself. There was real unity of purpose and the natural synergy and co-operation between arts, the media, language organisations (Welsh was spoken at a World Cup press conference for the first time) and sport should kick start lasting and productive relationships.

We also saw a £1.8m World Cup Partner Support Fund from the Welsh Government, which added value to some exceptional projects sharing our culture, arts, and heritage. The 19 funded projects put our values front and centre and promoted a Wales that is open and welcoming.

There were more than 200 community-based events domestically and internationally; a concert held in New York by S4C; the Urdd delivering a fantastic singing Jamboree across schools in Wales where over 230,000 children took part, and Street Games Wales hosting doorstep sports sites within 36 areas of poverty across Wales.

I was at the giant bucket hat installation on the Corniche on the morning of the Wales v Iran game, together with thousands of other Welsh fans, as Dafydd Iwan performed “Yma o Hyd” with the Urdd Choir and The Barry Horns. That was emotional, I can tell you.

We went to Qatar with the objective of showcasing Wales as a nation. That might not have happened on the pitch, but it did elsewhere. Anyone who understands international economic development and its dependence on good awareness and relationships would understand that. Only a fool would expect there to be quick returns from this investment mostly of effort and time, but it’s clear to me that the World Cup offered us an unmissable opportunity that could simply not be ignored.

I’m convinced we will see Cymru at another Euros and another World Cup soon enough but, in the meantime, the foundations laid in Qatar have positioned us well and will have significant and enduring resonance for our nation.


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