Football is a powerful game; not only does it serve as a form of entertainment and enjoyment for the masses, but it’s also something that brings people together from many different walks of life, constituting a shared form of identity.
Football therefore has a significant impact on society. In towns and cities such as Newcastle, for example, where everyone is obsessed with the beautiful game, the fortunes of the local team have a considerable effect on the general mood in the surrounding area. This means that football is engrained in society and culture, and thus, has far-reaching implications for fans and entire geographical areas.
In this post, which will be the first in a series of related posts, we are going to focus on football’s relationship with culture, more specifically, with language. In the same way as films, literature, the theatre, dance, music, etc. sport is also a powerful tool through which to portray a nation’s culture and language, and that has clearly been the case in Wales for quite some time now, particularly over the past five or six years with the unprecedented level of success enjoyed by the Cymru men’s national football team.
As many of you are probably aware, the Welsh language is only spoken by a relatively small percentage of the Welsh population, 29.7% to be exact (899,500 people, according to an ONS survey in June 2022), and is no more than a minority language in the other geographical regions where it is spoken, most notably in Chubut Province, Argentina. It’s also worth noting that according to the results of the aforementioned survey, only 14.8% of respondents claim to speak Welsh daily, 5.6% weekly, and 7.6% less often. Likewise, the 2011 census reported that the number of Welsh speakers in the traditional heartlands of Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire dropped below 50% for the first time ever. Therefore, any efforts to promote the Welsh language are greatly appreciated, and the Football Association of Wales (FAW) has certainly done its bit, offering Welsh-language instruction for football coaches, promoting songs in Welsh, encouraging players in its national teams to learn the language, securing TV coverage for Wales football games on the Welsh-language channel S4C, etc. And, it’s these particular efforts that we will explore in more detail in this post, because they show just how important sport can be in promoting language learning.
2015: Welsh-language competency among football coaches
In response to what many deemed an alarming decline in the use of Welsh in football coaching around 2015, the FAW, along with the Welsh Football Trust (WFT), conducted a survey developed in consultation with the Welsh Language Commissioner to assess levels of Welsh-language competency among coaches. As positive responses were received from some 800 coaches, the FAW decided to start offering education courses and bilingual training workshops to support coaches who wished to coach in Welsh. These efforts were later bolstered by the FAW’s social media platforms, encouraging communication with coaches in Welsh, as well as in English. Bilingual champions and role models were also identified to encourage the use of Welsh in football.
2016: Support for Shwmae Su’mae Day and a Welsh video game cover celebrating Wales’ participation at Euro 2016
In 2016, the FAW announced their support for Shwmae (Hello!) Su’mae (How are you?) Day — a day that encourages people to give the language a try by inviting everyone in Wales to introduce themselves in Welsh. This support came after the Euro 2016 campaign, with the incredible success of the national team and their substantial social media following catapulting the Welsh language onto the international stage. This even led to one of Wales’ main sponsors, Adidas, posting their first ever message in Welsh to congratulate the team on reaching the semi-finals following their superb 3-1 win over Belgium (West Bromwich Albion fanatic and Tiki-Taka’s Jae Marple will never forget that sensational Hal Robson-Kanu goal that brought pure joy to him and his grandfather).
But, that wasn’t the only way that the Welsh language was promoted at the time. For the first time ever, Konami produced an element localised in Welsh: an officially licensed Welsh-language cover, featuring world-renowned winger Gareth Bale (please see link for image), for the Pro Evolution UEFA Euro 2016 game for PS3 and PS4. This move proved to be a huge success, with fans desperate to get their hands on this special cover, which was not only in Welsh, but also emblazoned with the best player to have ever sported the Wales jersey (and Jae’s footballing idol, and that’s not just because of his Welsh blood).
2018: FAW at the National Eisteddfod Festival and FAW partnership with BBC Horizons to promote Welsh-language music
In 2018, the FAW participated in the National Eisteddfod of Wales, an annual festival promoting Welsh culture. The association contributed in many ways, including offering football coaching sessions in both English and Welsh for local children around Cardiff Bay on the Grange Garden’s Maxi Pitch, which was donated to the area as part of the UEFA Champions League Final legacy (for those who don’t remember or weren’t aware, the final was played at the Principality Stadium, Cardiff between Juventus and Real Madrid in 2018).
With literature also being such an important part of Welsh culture, Ian Gwyn Hughes, Head of Public Affairs and Stakeholder Engagement at the FAW, chaired a panel with Dylan Ebenezer and Simon Brooks, who have all recently written books about football in Welsh. This session was dedicated to various topics relating to Welsh football, including the women’s game and the impact of the domestic game on local communities throughout Wales.
And, in line with Eisteddfod tradition, the ‘strict metre poetry’ bard prize was awarded at the end of the festival, with Gruffudd Eifion Owen from Pwllheli claiming the prestigious award under the pseudonym ‘Hal Robson-Kanu’. This is because the winning poem, ‘Porth’ (‘Gateway’), is devoted to Robson-Kanu’s famous goal against Belgium – the goal we mentioned earlier – and how young children fall in love with the beautiful game.
2018 also marked the start of a collaboration between the FAW and BBC Horizons. As part of this collaboration, music from Welsh artists is promoted through highlights videos for the national team, which have now been viewed more than 500,000 times across the world. Since the collaboration’s launch in February 2018, 14 different videos have been published using 13 different artists from across Wales, covering various genres: pop, rock, third-wave ska, etc.
When Jayne Ludlow announced her squad for Wales’ crucial upcoming World Cup Qualifier against England at the Eisteddfod later in the same year, during the highest-attended press conference in history for the Welsh women’s football team, the Welsh band Adwaith performed ‘Fel i Fod’ (‘How to Be’). This song played a starring role in the highlights video for the games against Bosnia-Herzegovina and Russia, which had more than 100,000 views across all social media channels.
In addition, Alffa’s ‘Gwenwyn’ (‘Poison’), which was used in the highlights video for the men’s team’s 4-1 victory over the Republic of Ireland, recently became the first Welsh-language song to surpass one million listens on Spotify. The Himalayas’ ‘Thank God I’m Not You’ was also viewed more than 100,000 times as part of the launch for the 2018/2019 JD Welsh Premier League season.
2019: Welsh women’s team takes up the challenge of learning Welsh
After Kayleigh Green had started sending voice notes in Welsh to Natasha Harding as a way to practise the language and pick up new vocabulary, 11 players and six staff members in the Women’s Euro 2022 qualifying campaign squad took up the challenge of learning Welsh as a team-bonding exercise, leaning on Natasha Harding and other Welsh speakers in the squad such as Angharad James for support. The team also encouraged fans to interact with the players in Welsh on social media to help them develop their language skills. There’s no evidence of how well the initiative went, but the players were very enthusiastic at first, greeting each other with “bore da” (“good morning”) and “te gyda llaeth am frecwast” (“tea with milk for breakfast”) in the mornings.
2022: TV rights for Wales games and more promotional efforts through music
Earlier this year, UEFA confirmed that Welsh-language channel S4C has secured exclusive UK broadcasting rights for all Wales men’s games until 2024 and, from 2024, Cymru’s qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup 2026 and UEFA Euro 2028, as well as all of Wales’ UEFA Nations League fixtures during that period, will be exclusively available on the platform Viaplay, which has made a commitment to providing commentary for all Cymru matches in Welsh.
Moreover, ahead of Wales’ FIFA World Cup Play-Off Final against Ukraine, the FAW joined Welsh Drill artist Sage Todz to release the exclusive track, ‘O Hyd’ (‘Still’), which begins with a sample of legendary folk artist Dafydd Iwan’s Yma O Hyd (‘We’re Still Here’), before leading into Sage Todz’s rap: “Dani yma yma. On the way to the top of game, ar y ffordd i dop y byd. Motsh gen i am awgrymiadau. Mae’r wlad ei hun yn fach. Ond mae’r ddraig yn pwyso tunnell” (English translation: “We are here! On the way to the top of game, on the way to the top of the world. I don’t care what anyone else suggests. Our country is small, but the dragon weighs a ton”). The Swansea-born rapper Marino also performed a verse to get The Red Wall & the Welsh team even more hyped for their game against Ukraine.
And, talking about Dafydd Iwan and Yma O Hyd, you may remember his rendition of this song after the final whistle in that very same victory, catapulting the record to number 1 in the Welsh charts shortly after. Well, this song has now been remastered, re-recorded and mixed with Red Wall voices to form the official soundtrack to commemorate Wales’ appearance at the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 — the nation’s first in 64 years. The limited edition CD for this anthem, which also features a version of Mae Hen Wlad fy Nhadau (‘Land of my Fathers’) is currently on sale for £2.99, with all proceeds being directly invested in grassroots football facilities across Wales. However, this song is not only a Welsh-language celebration of the national football team’s success, but also a means of promoting and preserving the age-old language; Iwan and Ar Log originally produced this record in 1983 to defiantly defend the Welsh language against all the odds. Actually, the song’s title Yma O Hyd (‘We’re Still Here’) is highly significant in itself, celebrating the fact that Welsh is one of the oldest living languages in the world.
Conclusion: Football is an extremely powerful tool through which to promote languages
As this blog post has shown, football is an incredibly powerful tool that permeates many aspects of society, including culture. The FAW has managed to promote the Welsh language through football coaching, video games, music, literature, TV coverage and social media, so through various forms of popular culture consumed and enjoyed by the masses in Wales. By doing so, it now seems “cool” to speak Welsh, particularly when the national team is the topic of discussion, giving even greater meaning to the words of Dafydd Iwan and Ar Log; Welsh is definitely “still here”, if not, more present than before.
We could therefore argue that the FAW has drawn on the rapidly growing popularity of football in the Land of my Fathers to unite the nation around its distinct culture, of which the Welsh language is a vital component. The FAW and the success of the Cymru national team have kind of become a driver for change, reigniting a passion among the people of Wales to learn a language that many feared would cease to exist and has only been classed as an official language in its homeland since 2011.
Football and efforts to promote the Welsh language have therefore become inextricably linked in Wales, which is further highlighted by the application that the FAW has recently filed with FIFA to officially change Wales’ name to Cymru in the international game.
Football has the power to bring about changes in many ways, and as we’ve discussed, it can have a great impact on any aspects of culture, including language, and Wales is the epitome of that.
And, long may this resurgence of Welsh through football continue, especially if people from overseas such as Wrexham co-owner Rob McElhenney have even decided to give the language a try.
We hope you enjoyed this post and we’ll get the next edition on efforts to promote languages through football to you as soon as we can.