“A beautiful, hostile atmosphere,” is how Roberto Martinez described the cauldron of passion at the Cardiff City Stadium as his Belgium team drew 1-1 with Wales earlier this month.
With Rob Page’s team having been drawn to meet Austria in the World Cup play-offs next March, the Red Wall must replicate and amplify that remarkable atmosphere.
You rarely see the words beautiful and hostile sitting next to each other in a sentence.
But you knew exactly what the Belgium manager meant.
Martinez had just watched his world number one ranked team made to look hugely uncomfortable.
It hadn’t been done against the hate-filled “welcome” many nations see as essential for creating a “hostile atmosphere” for visiting teams.
Instead, there were men, women and children singing their songs and showing their passion for Wales.
They more than did the job. The Red Wall helped inspire the home team and put Belgium off their game to earn one of the most important results in Welsh football history.
Martinez admitted as much in his post match interview.
“I would say without the crowd that maybe we don’t concede that goal,” said the former Swansea City manager in what was an astonishing admission.
“Every time the ball goes into the box or every time the ball goes to a certain player’s feet, those emotions can give you an extra step.
“For us, that’s why it was so good to see our young players able to cope in that environment and we can take a lot of information out of the way that we performed in such a beautiful, hostile atmosphere.”
Top football managers aren’t normally the kind to admit to this kind of influence on a game.
Especially an external influence which is enough to result in conceding a goal.
Professional sport is all about marginal gains these days – those tiny elements which when added together can make a fraction of a difference to a performance.
At the last World Cup, Belgium flew out made-to-measure mattresses to ensure their players had the best possible rest between matches in Russia.
Cycling teams go as far as to provide personalised pillows for their riders.
So, for Martinez to admit that the Welsh crowd contributed to his team conceding a goal is massive.
The former Premier League boss is too experienced a manager to make rash statements – not these days anyway.
The Spaniard learned the importance of words as a young manager at Swansea City when he said he would have to be forced out of the Liberty Stadium door before heading straight for the exit at the first wave of Wigan chairman Dave Whelan’s wad.
.@Cymru and players have praised ‘The Red Wall’ for helping them over the World Cup Qualifying campaign so far.
More than 32,000 fans sung ‘Yma O Hyd’ as the boys walked around the pitch after last night’s draw with Belgium. 🏴
Here’s a view from the Canton stand 👇 pic.twitter.com/0W6tdhv9EF
— Heart Wales News (@heartwalesnews) November 17, 2021
So, if the older, wiser, Martinez thinks the Red Wall played a part, he is to be believed and Wales should take every bit of advantage of it against Austria and beyond.
This marginal gain is a bit more than ordering made to measure beds.
The manager of the world’s number one football team admitted the result was influenced by the Welsh crowd.
It just goes to show “hostility” doesn’t have to be ugly.
Some nations’ “supporters” still seem to think a hostile atmosphere can only be generated by abuse, flares, violence, racist chants and gestures or booing the opposition’s anthems.
On the last point, both the Belgian and Belarus anthems were immaculately respected during the last two World Cup group matches.
Fans don’t have to be insulting or abusive to opposition teams. They just have to show their passion for their own.
The singing of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau was simply breathtaking at both matches and set the scene for outstanding Welsh performances.
Wales boasts what many regard as the best anthem in the world, so let’s continue to use it to our advantage.
For decades, Welsh people have been labelled with the stereotype that we walk around all day singing four part harmonies.
The thing about many stereotypes is that they quite often have some truth in them.
What a draw for #Wales #Cymru We couldn’t have wished for a better path really! I witnessed the disappointment of the infamous game against #Scotland #Alba at Ninian Park back in 1985! So fingers crossed we get to play them in the final 🏴🏴⚽️🤞! @IndyWalesFans #TogetherStronger https://t.co/1RvlaRwVTu
— Dean John (@deanindiejohn) November 26, 2021
Singing has always been a huge part of Welsh life and in the past it has brought people together, whether they can sing or not, and whatever the song.
And one thing Wales as a football nation has discovered in recent years is together we really are stronger.
“Together Stronger” isn’t just some glib marketing slogan created by the Welsh FA. It reflected an authentic cultural development – a re-connection among fans with their national football team – and has made a difference to Wales as a football nation.
Who knows whether Martinez was directly referencing the singing when he was talking about the beautiful, hostile atmosphere.
But one thing’s for sure. It was loud, proud and passionate.
Singing used to play a huge part at Welsh rugby internationals when the old hymns like Cwm Rhondda, I Bob Un Sydd Fyddlon and Calon Lan rang around the old National Stadium.
Perhaps some fans at the Principality Stadium these days are more pre-occupied with filling their glasses and emptying their bladders during the game, or maybe looking out for themselves on the big screens.
Fans at the Cardiff City Stadium have no such distractions and there definitely seems to have been a rise in the volume of vocal support at Wales games in recent years, including some of the old Welsh language standards.
Before anyone thinks this is going to turn into a rugby bashing exercise, it’s not.
There are reasons why football fans aren’t allowed to drink at their seats during games and they hark back to the unacceptable era of football hooliganism.
Welsh football has plumbed the depths of ugly hostility in the past. Going to a football international wasn’t always the inclusive and enjoyable experience it is now.
In fact, it could be the exact opposite.
Memories linger of a World Cup Qualifier at Vetch Field in the late 80s where Swansea and Cardiff fans hurled foul-mouthed chants and more than the occasional fist at each other during the game.
A small pocket of visiting Finland fans looked on bemused, wondering who Welsh fans were fighting against while they were corralled in their peaceful corner of the ground.
To steal a line from another anthem we may hear in Cardiff next March: “Those days are past now and in the past they must remain.”
For those who remember the dark old days, it was wonderful to hear the Cardiff City Stadium echoing to the “beautiful hostility” of men, women, boys, girls, Swans, Bluebirds, Robins et al, singing in harmony.
So, let’s continue to move on from that discordant past and build on that “beautiful hostility” so admired by Martinez when we welcome the Austrians.
Let’s hear Yma o Hyd sung in the middle of matches in the way it was sung at the end of the Belgium game.
Some may claim a protest song from the early 80s isn’t appropriate or even relevant to a game of football.
But surely Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons weren’t thinking of the Wales team of the 90s when they first sang “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.” But that didn’t stop it becoming an anthem to unite Welsh fans.
Anyway, the chorus of Yma o Hyd (Still Here) fits in rather nicely when you think about what Welsh football has faced in the past and where it’s hoping to go.
A week ago already, can’t wait for the next one 🏴 pic.twitter.com/lzRzOeurfv
— Evan Powell (@EvanPowell03) November 23, 2021
The original meaning of songs belted out at sports events don’t always have to be relevant to the here and now, as long as they bring people together in support of their team.
Irish rugby fans gave a rousing answer to the Haka recently with a song about the Great Potato Famine of the 19th Century and set the scene for another historic win over the All Blacks.
Welsh football is a broad church these days, where everyone is welcome to sing from the same hymn sheet – or any other kind of song sheet for that matter – as long as it contributes to the proud, passionate and peaceful support of the team.