Wales football fans are enjoying the good times. Pic: Getty Images.

Rugby Or Football On Top? In Wales, Both Have Some Way To Go Before They Can Look Down On The Other

Football is now more popular in Wales than rugby. How do we know this? Because the Football Association of Wales told us so yesterday after some expensive piece of research. Except, as Daniel Parker points out, the truth is not quite so black and white and should certainly require a little more humility – on both sides.

Another week, another tiresome round of Twitter squabbles on whether rugby or football is truly the national sport of Wales.

The instinctive reaction should be to avoid these fractious arguments with a bargepole.

Away from the fragmented noise of the internet, most sane people fall into what Richard Nixon might have called the ‘silent majority’ – or at least the ‘sizeable chunk’ – of the Welsh population who love both sports.

There is no fundamental reason why the two codes should be bitter competitors, other than to fulfil the pastiche archetype of the self-loathing Welsh you might find in an Edwardian short story by Caradoc Evans.

Shouldn’t we all want Welsh rugby and Welsh football to succeed and prove our sniping, snobby detractors wrong?

The difference with this week’s online spat is that the Football Association of Wales have chimed in; not-so-humbly highlighting a new piece of research which suggests the round ball has taken the lead in terms of ‘public interest’ in Wales.

Even if you were prepared to overlook the obvious deficiencies of the research conducted by Nielsen (an unreliably low sample size; the involvement of UEFA; and some incredibly vague terms of reference), you’d still have to take the study with a hefty pinch of salt.

 

The timing of this research is, of course, hugely convenient: the Welsh Rugby Union’s standing amongst the public has rarely been at a lower ebb.

That fifth-place finish of the men’s national team in this year’s Six Nations; ongoing anger at alcohol-fuelled anti-social behaviour and ticket prices at the Principality Stadium; the dire performance of the regions; and the chaotic (and totally avoidable) discussions about scrapping one of the four professional sides all sketch out the same picture: a governing body devoid of direction and asleep at the wheel in an hour of chaos.

The low bar the WRU have set naturally presents an opportunity for the FAW to present itself as a marketable, forward-looking and capable counterpart.

No surprise, then, that the association were especially keen to highlight the survey findings which associated them with the buzzwords ‘modern’, ‘trustworthy’ and ‘progressive’.

It’s worth pointing out, though, that we’re still talking about the FAW which made the morally dubious choice to employ Ryan Giggs in 2018.

And the same FAW which is content to flog off the TV rights to its national team behind an obscure, paywalled streaming service during a cost of living crisis (and has had to be dragged kicking and screaming by S4C into allowing the broadcaster to maintain its Welsh language coverage of Wales games).

Hardly the sort of actions you would associate with a trustworthy or progressive organisation, let’s be honest.

It’s telling that in his press release welcoming the report, association CEO Noel Mooney attributes credit to ‘FAW employees’ in the first instance.

 

Even if the affable Mooney does make passing reference to the need for ‘improvement’ in some areas, it’s hard to see the parading of this research as anything other than a glossy PR exercise.

And it’s one that will do little to address underlying problems with the game in Wales.

Investment in the grassroots and facilities, from clubhouses and pitches to a shortage of referees and junior coaches, has been an issue for years, and has not gone away.

The best community outreach work in Wales is still being undertaken by Wales’ Football League clubs (the County in the Community team spearheaded by the inspirational Norman Parselle, and the Swansea and Cardiff City Foundations) largely independent of any substantive FAW direction or support.

Other clubs are struggling to stay afloat altogether.

The last decade has seen the demise of Neath FC, Rhyl FC and Ebbw Vale FC among others, with Ebbw Vale explicitly citing the FAW’s lack of investment in community football as a contributing factor in their downfall.

The worrying circumstances around the future of Bangor City also highlight the FAW’s failure to move towards the fit-and-proper ownership test for football clubs, which is within their gift.

Rather than acting proactively as an ‘independent football nation’, the association are content to ‘examine lessons’ from the planned introduction of a regulator in England.

Meanwhile, the Cymru Premier League continues to serve as the poor relation among the Home Nations’ domestic competitions.

 

The league, which has never recovered from its farcical and acrimonious introduction in the 1990s, remains a virtual non-entity.

It is primarily played out in front of sparse North Walian crowds (the division contains just four teams south of Aberystwyth; and none at all from the South Wales Valleys or the entirety of either Gwent or West Glamorgan) and is still dominated by the bizarre, Shropshire-based concoction, The New Saints.

Even the Nielsen survey shows that awareness of the Cymru Premier has fallen by 15% since 2019.

The Cymru Premier has also failed to develop much in the way of talent fit for an elite level: of the current crop of Welsh internationals, Ben Cabango (once a loanee at TNS) is unique in having any experience of the division.

Nathan Broadhead and Rhys Norrington-Davies had brief dalliances with the youth set-ups at Bangor and Aberystwyth respectively, but that’s literally it.

That our national men’s football team has performed so well over recent years has next to nothing to do with the governance structures of the FAW; just as the men’s rugby team’s successes over the last 17 years have run against the tide of the lack of leadership shown by the WRU.

Perhaps more worrying from the footballing perspective is that there has not been a dramatic upturn in interest in the men’s national team to accompany feats on the field.

Football Has Overtaken Rugby As Wales’ No.1 Sport, Say FAW After New Research

While matchdays at the Cardiff City Stadium are generally electric for Wales games, a devil’s advocate argument is that this is more about a hardcore support base becoming more entrenched and fervent – a sort of Wales FC phenomenon – rather than a support base experiencing dramatic expansion; something that very decisively happened during the early 2000s.

This is at least partly attributable to the FAW’s historically disastrous decision to sell Wales games to Sky in the latter days of the Mark Hughes era – taking the national team out of the casual public eye for a generation.

Indeed, the Nielsen survey suggests that interest in international football is still 7% lower than general interest in football in Wales.

Whilst respect is due for the FAW’s decision to continue playing games at a smaller venue to maintain an atmospheric edge over opponents, the truth is that is in large part borne out of necessity: it’s notable that there were empty seats at crucial World Cup qualifiers at the Cardiff City Stadium last autumn.

Yes, crowds are up from the nadir of the late noughties, but horizons will need to be broadened.

The FAW may feel like they are surfing a wave at the moment, but there’s a much bigger Wales to be reached outside of bucket-hatted blokes (for a Welsh international football crowd is still overwhelmingly male) singing Dafydd Iwan numbers.

The association haven’t cracked it yet, and they won’t be forgiven if they rest on their laurels at a moment of maximum opportunity.

With that being said, it’s too easy to paint a picture of total gloom for the FAW (or indeed the WRU): the growth of the women’s game in both codes over recent years has been a proper success story, and may well be the dominant trend of the next decade.

That’s a great thing.

 

The FAW are conscious of the fact that Jess Fishlock and Sophie Ingle are capable of being instantly recognisable heroes to a generation of girls and young women.

And even the WRU were forced to put their hands in their pockets when the reality dawned on them that to grow women’s rugby they had to professionalise the top end.

Both bodies have problems in common too, though: the need to invest in the grassroots and domestic leagues; affordability (why do we need to spend north of £60 to buy a Wales rugby or football shirt these days?); and accessibility (who wants to fork out for either Amazon Prime or some streaming service called Viaplay to watch their country play?).

Anyway – referring back to the original question – what is Wales’ national sport?

Both sports have played important roles in developing the national identity and psyche over the course of nigh-on two centuries.

Both sports have produced working-class heroes and cultural icons of Welshness.

The national men’s rugby team has an enduring pull on the Welsh public which the football side can only seek to emulate.

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Everyone knows when the Six Nations are on. And an understrength, out-of-form Wales nearly packed the Principality Stadium for a meaningless friendly against Fiji last autumn, for goodness’ sake.

On the other hand, has any international football team in Europe been more turbo-powered by its home and away support than Wales and its Red Wall over the last decade?

And our four biggest football clubs are regularly much better-supported than their regional rugby counterparts.

But then again, Welsh rugby clubs in the semi-professional Premier Division (or indeed the likes of Neath and Pontypool in the second tier) are generally better-supported than their counterparts in the domestic football top-flight.

Diehards on both sides of the argument will always have their say, but the truth surely lies somewhere in the middle.

Wales’ national game?

There might well be two.

Like an early 2010s Facebook relationship status, it’s complicated.

 

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