A chill wind blew across the bay and rocked the roof of the giant marquee that had crashed on the edge of Singleton Park, but the atmosphere inside couldn’t have been warmer as the Swansea section of the ‘Red Wall’ roared their support for the Wales national football team.
“Great, isn’t it?” said diehard supporter Paul Cullen, 34, as he took in the sights and sounds of a lively fan park with his three young sons, all of whom play for Swansea Academy. “This competition is huge for Wales. We are the smallest nation in our group, but that means nothing if you have struggle, passion and faith. I love it.”
When Gareth Bale equalized against the USA in Cymru’s first World Cup final game since 1958, the fan park exploded. Strangers hugged, kissed and danced. The polite announcements not to throw beer in the air were flatly ignored. The game ended 1-1, but few left disappointed.
“This means so much,” said Paul Carroll, 40, with dewy eyes. “I may never see anything like this tournament with my kids again. It’s the best feeling. I’m so proud.”
Just being at the World Cup after so many decades felt like a win. Before kick-off, fans had jumped onto the tables and joined in deafening versions of Tom Jones’ Delilah and Yma o Hyd (Still Here), the defiant Welsh language anthem adopted by the side and becoming a fan favourite.
The rendition of the national anthem threatened to do more damage to the tent roof than the bitter winds ever could, as 2,000 fans here – and 3 million more across the country – united in song.
Some wore a lucky shirt that they promised to keep on during the group stage, regardless of the beer or sweat stains. Others followed rituals they hoped would bring fortune – the same pub, the same curry house they went to during Wales’ qualifying campaign.
Few here could remember Wales’ World Cup adventure in 1958 (they lost to Pelé’s Brazil in the quarter finals). Alun Jenkins, 75, was around, but he said he just failed his 11-plus. “So I had other things on my mind. I don’t think it was such a big deal back then.”
It’s definitely a big deal right now.
Former Welsh goalkeeper Neville Southall, who was on hand to launch this fan park in Swansea, said he hoped the World Cup would raise the mood in the country. “It’s good for people to have some hope, some joy in these pretty bleak times,” he said.
Not shying away from the sensitive issues, Southall criticized FIFA for threatening sanctions against players wearing the OneLove bracelet: “Why penalize someone who promotes inclusiveness? Football is for everyone.”
Things felt a little worse when Laura McAllister, a professor of public policy at Cardiff University and former captain of the Wales women’s football team, tweeted from Qatar that her rainbow hat had been confiscated. “We will continue to stand up for our values,” she said.
Before kick-off, McAllister had explained the importance of the World Cup to Wales. “The whole football scene in Wales has been a reflection of a new confidence in the country, especially among younger people,” she said.
“This gives us the opportunity to show what our strengths, our USP are. It’s a huge platform. We will do everything we can to not only win matches, but to utilize as much profile, awareness and knowledge as possible.”
Evie Jones, 18, left the Swansea marquee beaming. “We have the best flag, the best national anthem, the best fans. I can’t wait for the next game.”