Absent from the World Cup for 64 years, Wales insists: ‘We are still here’

Dafydd Iwan sang "Yma O Hyd" before Wales played Ukraine at Cardiff City Stadium this June. Wales won the match and advanced to the World Cup. (Huw Fairclough/Getty Images)

The song begins with a strummed acoustic guitar, the tinkling of a harp and a metronomic, minor-key melody line that starts low and slowly ascends, like a primordial vapor rising from deep in the Welsh soil. On the day 39 years ago when Dafydd Iwan first recorded “Yma o Hyd” (“Still Here”), his folk song about the unlikely resilience of the Welsh culture and language, a lone tear streaked down the side of his face — a songwriter’s self-confirmation he had made something lasting and important.

When he sang the song again one Sunday this June, this time in front of a sellout crowd at Cardiff City Stadium on the outskirts of the Welsh capital, the tear returned — and this time brought some friends.

Iwan, now 79, had been summoned by the Welsh national soccer team to serenade the crowd ahead of its critical match against Ukraine, with the winner earning a spot in the World Cup. Over the course of the preceding months, the team had taken “Yma o Hyd” as its unofficial anthem as it fought to secure the country’s first World Cup berth in 64 years.

Standing in a corner of the field, flanked by 33,280 red-clad Welshmen and women, known collectively as the Red Wall, he began to sing. The verses — with their biting references to would-be conquerors Magnus Maximus, the fourth-century Roman emperor, and Margaret Thatcher, the 20th-century British prime minister — were accompanied mostly by mumbles from the crowd. (Less than a third of Wales’s population speaks Welsh.)

But when Iwan hit the first soaring chorus — “Er gwaetha pawb a phopeth / Ry’n ni yma o hyd!” (“In spite of everyone and everything / We are still here!”) — the voices of the Red Wall suddenly joined his in a swaying, full-throated, fist-raising unison.

By the third chorus, Iwan was weeping.

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“When they joined in,” Iwan said in a telephone interview, “it was like a powerful force. There was so much passion in the singing, I couldn’t resist crying. … I’ve been singing that song for 40 years, and it’s almost as if I’d been rehearsing for this moment.”

And when the Welsh team went out and vanquished Ukraine, 1-0, on a free kick by captain Gareth Bale deflected into the goal by a Ukrainian defender, Iwan was ushered onto the field to sing the song again, this time with Bale and his teammates swaying and singing behind him.

It was a charming and singular scene — an aging folk singer leading a rendition of his protest song from a bygone era — that wouldn’t have made sense in a larger country. (The American equivalent, one supposes, would be Woody Guthrie walking into Giants Stadium and leading the crowd, plus Christian Pulisic and mates, in a joyous singalong to “This Land Is Your Land.”)

But on that particular day, and in that particular country, it was pitch-perfect.

“ ‘Yma o Hyd’ — that’s a massive anthem for us. The song is very poignant to what we’re about,” Coach Rob Page told reporters. “We’re all passionate Welsh people who love our country.” Playing for Wales, explained Iwan, “means something more than playing for a shirt.”

Indeed, the Welsh team in Qatar — where it will face the United States, England and Iran in group play — is less a collection of athletes than the designated representative of a national movement.

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“For a nation of 3 million people to be on one of the greatest sporting stages in the world,” said Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford, the nation’s head of government, “is hugely significant for the people of Wales who have been waiting 64 years for this to happen.”

Wales’s only previous World Cup appearance, in 1958, ended with a loss to Brazil in the quarterfinals, the lone goal scored by 17-year-old future legend Pele. The decades since have brought mostly futility. Now, behind 33-year-old superstar Bale, they’re on the rise, qualifying for the past two Euro Championships and making it to the semifinals in 2016. Making it to Qatar was the next step.

Neville Southall, a legendary Welsh goalkeeper of the 1980s and 1990s considered among the greatest players in the country’s history, never managed to lift Wales to the World Cup. “This is a barrier broken,” Southall said of this year’s team. “There’s a future generation who will believe we can achieve more. It will inspire the whole country.”

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But the rise of Wales as a European soccer force over the past decade or so has also coincided with the nation’s reemergence from decades if not centuries of political and cultural suppression, much of it self-inflicted. The two trend lines are practically interchangeable: As the team’s success embodies the rise of Welsh nationalism, the citizenry’s thirst for outside affirmation of its unique Welshness has become wrapped up in the sporting fortunes of a couple dozen soccer players.

“I can see how from the outside it would seem absolutely astonishing” to attach such monumental meaning to the performance of a soccer team, said Delyth Jewell, a member of the Welsh parliament, or Senedd, and the chair of its committee that oversees sports, culture and language. “But what has been actually quite revolutionary is that because of the football team’s success and the fact they have embraced that song, it shows that the Welsh nation has matured so much, in terms of being comfortable with itself and embracing the language, as well.

“It’s something that’s really emotional, actually.”

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It’s no wonder acclaimed Welsh actor Michael Sheen (“Frost/Nixon,” “Masters of Sex”), asked during a televised British game show last month to improvise a speech to the Welsh national team, first gathered himself, then unleashed a spirited oration that sounded like it could have been delivered by Shakespeare’s Henry V at the Agincourt battlefield on St. Crispin’s Day:

“One nation, singing with one voice, a song of hope, a song of courage,” Sheen declared in a speech that quickly went viral, leading to his recruitment to deliver a similar oration in person to the Welsh players the following week. “A victory song that floats through the valleys like a red mist, that rolls over the mountaintops like crimson thunder! A red storm is coming to the gates of Qatar!”

Sheen then slipped into Welsh to deliver the punchline: “Yma o hyd!” Sheen roared, rising to his feet for emphasis. “ … We. Are Still. Here!”

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Many Americans undoubtedly think of Wales the same way Ted Lasso did. In the pilot episode of the AppleTV comedy of the same name, the newly hired American coach of England’s AFC Richmond soccer team, Lasso (Jason Sudeikis), has learned one of his players is from Wales.

“Is that another country?” he asks.

“Yes and no,” he is told.

“How many countries are in this country?” he asks with a tinge of exasperation.

“Four.”

But of the four countries that make up the UK — the others being England, Northern Ireland and Scotland — Wales seems to have had the most difficult time forging its own identity to the outside world.

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“Wales has probably struggled more than our Scottish or [Northern] Irish counterparts to convey to the rest of the world that we are here in that distinctive way,” said Drakeford. “So in that sense, our success on the sporting field and getting to the World Cup certainly does [create] the opportunity to explain to the rest of world [that] we are a very distinct nation with our own language and history.

“I wonder even within the U.S. how many know the largest number of people who signed the Declaration of Independence were from Wales?”

The U.S. men’s World Cup squad will face off against Wales, Iran and group favorite England in the group stage of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

As recently as the late 19th century, the esteemed Encyclopaedia Britannica, in its entry for Wales, directed readers: “See ‘England.’ ”

“For decades — centuries — we’ve [heard], ‘Oh, no. You don’t really exist as a nation,’ ” said Jewell, the Senedd member.

At times, the people of Wales seemed to prefer being England’s charges to striking out on their own, as in 1979, when a referendum proposing devolution — or a separate Welsh legislature with limited powers — was defeated by Welsh voters by a margin of nearly four to one. (A second referendum, in 1997, would pass, leading to the formation of the Senedd in 1999.)

For Wales to forge its own national identity, Jewell said, it required “shackles that had to be removed in peoples’ psyches.” And the success of the Welsh national soccer team this year, she said, has pushed the process along.

“I know that’s a really dramatic way of putting it,” she said. “But it does really feel like a shift.”

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As Drakeford, Wales’s first minister, put it, “When you’re a small nation alongside a much bigger nation, and the English language being such a global language, in some ways the most remarkable thing about Wales is its survival as its own place and with its own history. We haven’t just been submerged by the size and the reach of a country that we are next door to.”

It is perhaps fitting that Wales was placed in a World Cup group that also includes England — with a head-to-head matchup Nov. 29 — so that worldwide viewers might understand that the two countries and teams are not only distinct but also distinctive.

“There is a weight of expectation on the English team that is ultimately suffocating and crippling,” said Welsh actor Gwilym Lee (“Jamestown,” “Bohemian Rhapsody”), who was raised in Birmingham, England, by Welsh parents and now lives in London. “There is a sense of entitlement, an unfounded expectation on English football.

“We don’t really have that in Welsh football.”

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But isn’t there a different sort of pressure on the Welsh team if, in fact, it is being asked to play not only for national pride but for the advancement — perhaps the very survival — of the national culture?

Jewell pondered that question: “The weight of history is on them in lots of ways,” she conceded. “But rather than seeing it as a weight on their heads, I would prefer for them to see it as support beneath them. … I really feel we’ve made it now, and whatever happens from here is a wonderful bonus. I hope the players see that — that in our eyes they’re already winners.”

‘It’s such a proud, wonderful thing’

After King Henry VIII banned the Welsh language in 1536, it would be more than 400 years before it was legalized again. As recently as the 19th century, Welsh was literally beaten out of school kids by teachers who overhead it being spoken.

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“Even in my grandparents’ time, people within Wales still looked down on the language. My grandparents would think there was something to almost be ashamed of about it,” said Jewell. “To think we have gone from that to being in a stadium full of people — in Cardiff, no less, which was quite an Anglicized city — [with] people singing this song about the resilience and joy in our Welshness, is phenomenal.

“It’s such a proud, wonderful thing for the nation actually to be proud of itself. Lots of your readers would think, ‘Well, of course you’d be proud of yourself as a nation.’ But it’s been a journey for Wales, and it’s a long time coming.”

In the early 1970s, a young leader of the nationalist Welsh Language Society was jailed briefly for defacing road signs — he had painted over their English words with Welsh ones. But the man was also a fledgling singer-songwriter — with influences that tended toward American protest singers such as Guthrie, Joan Baez and Pete Seeger — and he would eventually write the song that encapsulated the unlikely survival of the culture and language.

The singer’s name was Dafydd Iwan. The song was “Yma o Hyd.”

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Now, when he drives into Cardiff from his village in the south of Wales, the signs all read in English and Welsh. When he recorded “Yma o Hyd,” he said, one school in Cardiff taught in Welsh; now there are 20.

“The cynical attitude towards the Welsh language as a dying language is gone,” Iwan said. “Where I live, virtually everybody speaks it as a first language. But it’s more than that. There is also the growth of the Welsh parliament and the Welsh education system. There is a growing feeling of pride. … This feeling of belonging to a nation which is determined to survive.”

In the weeks that followed Iwan’s performances in Cardiff in June, “Yma o Hyd” shot up the iTunes UK singles chart, leapfrogging songs by Lady Gaga and Harry Styles and ultimately landing at No. 1 — surpassing another 1980s relic that had been rediscovered by a new generation: Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” from the finale of the Netflix series “Stranger Things.”

A new version of “Yma o Hyd” — featuring Iwan’s original mix blended with the live performance at Cardiff City Stadium, featuring the crowd singing along — was released this month to promote the team’s World Cup appearance.

Iwan said he planned to be in Qatar for group play; though he won’t be able to reprise his Cardiff performances in a stadium setting, he still expected to perform at a designated fan zone for Welsh fans who have traveled there.

And whatever happens, the growth of the Welsh culture and language within the country’s own borders has only one trajectory, heading ever onward. Recently, the Football Association of Wales signaled it expects to change how the name of the country is represented at international competitions.

Beginning in 2023, the national team will no longer be called Wales.

It will be known henceforth as Cymru, which is Welsh for “Wales.”

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