Language has always been important in sport. Major, multinational football clubs often mean dressing room conversations in different tongues, while national sides bond around something more singular. Wales’ women’s team recently announced many of their players would be brushing up on their Welsh language skills as they seek to gain an even closer understanding within their squad, as Graham Thomas reports.
When Angharad James wants make a tactical point to teammate Natasha Harding, it’s not a surprise she talks to her in Welsh.
In fact, like every international footballer, James is determined to maximize all advantages and is anxious for more players in the national team to communicate in the language.
James and Harding just happen to be clubmates at Reading FC, so the sounds of two women chatting in Welsh as they stand over a free-kick at the Madejski Stadium may confuse more than a few defenders in the opposition.
It’s an edge James would like to see Wales utilize more regularly – in part to keep opponents guessing, but also as an expression of her identity and that of the team battling to qualify for the next European Championships.
“With me and Tash, we use Welsh both at club level and here playing for Wales,” says James who was part of the Wales team that drew 1-1 in their most recent match at home to Northern Ireland.
“If we are playing against an English-speaking country – such as Northern Ireland – or a team with a lot of players who understand English, and we want to make a tactical point to each other, then we’d speak Welsh to each other.
“It’s just a shame that more players in the squad don’t speak the language. It’s an added weapon and if you can all speak the language it obviously helps.
“In fact, it’s something we have spoken about – getting someone to come and help teach the whole squad to speak and use their Welsh.”
Those wishes have since been granted and 11 players, plus manager Jayne Ludlow, have signed up to improve their Welsh language skills, using group work and smartphone apps.
After a summer in which Wales international rugby players Jonathan Davies and Ken Owens were both honoured by the Gorsedd of Bards at the National Eisteddfod, it would seem the Welsh language is being used to full effect on both the field and in touchline interviews.
But there is still more that can be done to enable sports enthusiasts at all levels to use the Welsh language. One in five of the population speaks Welsh, so encouraging Welsh speakers and learners can be a way of gaining new members for any sports club.
With that in mind, the website Club Solutions, in conjunction with the Welsh Language Commissioner, has produced an online tool to assist clubs in those aims. http://www.clubsolutions.wales/welsh-give-it-a-go-using-the-welsh-language-in-sport/
Last summer, Cricket Wales began to offer more help to coaches who wanted to coach in Welsh and this season many governing bodies have noticeably ramped up their Welsh language use in their day-to-day activity.
The Football Association of Wales is perhaps leading the way, having gone through a lot of rebranding with a clearer commitment to the Welsh language and the use of the word ‘Cymru’ in match reports on its website, rather than ‘Wales’.
But there is certainly nothing new about the use of Welsh in sport and it existed long before any corporate strategy.
One of the most famous – if very brief – meetings in Welsh sport was conducted in Welsh, when Gareth Edwards and Barry John got together for the first time in the late 1960s and decided how they were going to conquer world rugby as the finest young half-backs in the game.
“You throw it – I’ll catch it” was the phrase from the laid-back John to the more intense Edwards that has passed into rugby folklore.
Instead, what he actually said, was: “Twla di fe, ddala i fe”.
Gareth Charles, the voice of Welsh language commentary on both BBC Radio Cymru and S4C, says: “It was perfectly normal for two boys from Welsh speaking villages in West Wales to use their mother tongue on the field as well as off it.
“Not the first, and definitely not the last as Welsh has played an increasingly prominent role in all facets of sport.
“In the 1980s the Welsh rugby team used Welsh numbers as line-out calls which entailed the forwards learning to count from 1 to 10 in Welsh – a real challenge for some!
“And under the stewardship of the late Ray Gravell, the scoreboard at the old Stradey Park always featured the Welsh version of the opponents’ name – even to the extent of sporting on a visit from the Wasps, ‘Llanelli v Y Picwns’ (the colloquial name for the winged insects!).”
Charles pinpoints the growth in Welsh medium education and Welsh language broadcasting as the two drivers towards Welsh being used more on the field of play.
“Through radio initially, and then television, a brand new sporting terminology has been created, accepted and become part and parcel of the language.
“Sport has become a mainstay of S4C. The programme ‘Sgorio’, which has just celebrated its 30th birthday, introduced Welsh to a new wider audience outside Wales.
“As the only UK programme initially broadcasting top European football, viewers from England and Ireland became aware of the Welsh language.
“Sgorio and Y Clwb Rygbi regularly achieve S4C’s highest yearly viewing figures. “Along with Sgorio, other programmes on BBC Wales have allowed minority sports and grass roots clubs to have exposure they would not otherwise have enjoyed.
“Consequently, governing bodies have become aware that the use of Welsh is not only beneficial but necessary.
— Radio Cymru (@BBCRadioCymru) October 9, 2019
“The FAW’s campaign during Euro 2016 was exemplary and others, notably the WRU, have been following suit.”
In the age of social media, and its global reach, then the possibilities for the Welsh language to make itself heard via sport are ever-increasing.
Who would have thought that after signing a young Welsh footballer, Rabbi Matondo, the German club Schalke would be putting out daily tweets in Welsh for the benefit of their wider fan base as well as enthusiastic Germans?
Or, that following Geraint Thomas’s success at the Tour de France, there would be a Welsh language podcast called, ‘Y Dihangiad’?
Charles adds: “’Y dihangiad’ means ‘The breakaway’ and was a term coined during the Tour itself – a perfect example of sport, technology and language advancing hand in hand.”
But if any Welsh sports folk need extra motivation to brush up on their Welsh, then James has it.
“You can see when we sing the national anthem that we all feel passionately about it, but I think you can feel that even more if you understand all the words.”