A chilly wind whipped across the bay and demolished the roof of the giant marquee that had materialized on the edge of Singleton Park, but the atmosphere inside could not have been warmer as the Swansea section of the ‘red wall’ roared their support for the Welsh football team.
“Amazing, isn’t it?” said die-hard supporter Paul Cullen, 34, drinking in the sights and sounds of a lively fan park with his three young sons, who all play for the Swansea academy. “This competition is massive for Wales. We’re the smallest nation in our group but that doesn’t mean anything when you’ve got fight and passion and belief. I love it.”
When Gareth Bale equalized against the USA in Cymru’s first World Cup play-off game since 1958, the fan park erupted. Strangers hugged, kissed and danced. The polite messages not to throw beer in the air were ignored. The match ended 1-1, but few left disappointed.
“This means so much,” said a dewy Paul Carroll, 40. “I may never see the likes of this tournament with my kids again. It’s the best feeling. I’m so proud.”
Just being in the World Cup after so many decades felt like a victory. Before kick-off fans had jumped on the tables and joined in with deafening versions of Tom Jones’ Delilah and Yma o Hyd (Still Here), the defiant Welsh folk song that has been adopted by the squad and has become a fan favourite.
The rendition of the national anthem threatened to do more damage to the marquee roof than the bitter wind ever could, as 2,000 fans here — and 3 million more across the nation — united in song.
Some wore lucky shirts that they vowed to keep on throughout the group stage regardless of beer or sweat stains. Others followed rituals they hoped would bring good luck – the same pub, the same curry house they went to during Wales’ qualifying campaign.
Few here could remember Wales’ 1958 World Cup triumph (they lost in the quarter-finals to Pelé’s Brazil). Alun Jenkins, 75, was nearby, but he said he had just failed his 11-plus. “So I had other things on my mind. I don’t think it was such a big deal then.”
It’s certainly a big deal now.
Former Wales goalkeeper Neville Southall, who was on hand to launch this Swansea fan park, said he hoped the World Cup would lift spirits in the nation. “It’s good for people to have a little bit of hope, a little bit of joy in these pretty bleak times,” he said.
Southall did not shy away from the sensitive issues, criticizing Fifa for threatening to sanction players who wear the OneLove armband: “Why punish someone who promotes inclusion? Football is for everyone.”
It felt a little worse when Laura McAllister, professor of public policy at Cardiff University and a former captain of the Welsh 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.
Ahead of kick-off, McAllister had explained the importance of the World Cup to Wales. “The whole Welsh football scene has been a reflection of a new confidence in the nation, particularly among younger people,” she said.
“This gives us a chance to show what our strengths, our USP is. It’s a huge platform. We will do everything we can, not just to win games, but to leverage as much profile and awareness and knowledge.”
Evie Jones, 18, left the Swansea marquee beaming. “We have the best flag, the best anthem, the best fans. I can’t wait for the next game.”