Wales want to beat England to qualify, not to prove a point. But a victory will soften injustices of old | Martin Johnes

Whether the Welsh team win or lose on Tuesday, the sense of inferiority has gone

Like a lot of Welsh fans, I groaned when Wales were drawn in the same World Cup group as England. The World Cup is supposed to be about new experiences and global adventures. A game against our nearest neighbour would not only be familiar, it would also mean hype, distraction and politics.

That’s turned out to be true. There have been controversies around the Prince of Wales wishing England good luck. On social media, English fans have been sneering about how nine of the Welsh squad were born in England.

Some seem uncomfortable with, or even threatened by, the assertive patriotism in Welsh football. One journalist suggested to me that it was a mask for hating England and asked where it would all end.

Such perspectives were perhaps rooted in a blindness to the similar patriotism that exists in English sport. Or perhaps they expect little Wales to keep quiet and just be grateful to be there.

There was a time when playing England would have been a highlight for Wales. Most fans love a derby but for followers of smaller teams they are especially important. Those fans have little hope of a cup final or promotion so playing the neighbours enlivens otherwise drab seasons. With little to celebrate, songs about hating a local rival become key parts of the terrace repertoire.

This was once true of Welsh fan culture. But in recent years derogatory songs about England have disappeared from Welsh matches, although one about the British union jack remains popular. Since Euro 2016 showed that Wales can compete at the highest level, Welsh fans no longer feel any need to measure themselves against English football.

The same is not yet true of wider Welsh society. From the very beginnings of Wales, its people have defined themselves against England. The experience of conquest and the linguistic differences with England helped create a sense of unity among the different kingdoms of Wales. Even the name Wales was given to the Cymry, as they called themselves, by their English neighbour.

Gareth Bale plays in the match between Wales and Iran in Qatar.
Gareth Bale plays in the match between Wales and Iran in Qatar. Photograph: Marcio Machado/SPP/Rex/Shutterstock

For centuries, Wales was politically marginalised and looked down upon as a rural backwoods where people spoke an uncivilised language. Some responded to this by abandoning their heritage and becoming anglicised. Others hung on to their culture and language but became defensive about it in the face of the contempt of social investigators, tourists, landlords or employers. In 1862, the travel writer George Borrow wrote: “The English have forgot that they ever conquered the Welsh, but some ages will elapse before the Welsh forget that the English have conquered them.”

At the end of the 19th century, this mattered less as the Welsh industrial economy boomed. But since the 1920s, the economy has struggled and Westminster often made little effort to change its course. Wales was out of sight and out of mind. It was little wonder that some in Wales grew angry and held governance from England responsible for all Wales’s ills.

Sometimes, there has been an unhealthy obsession with this history in Wales. This can be to the detriment of a sense of agency. If we just see ourselves as victims, trapped in an unhealthy relationship with our neighbour, then we forget that our future is in our own hands. Rather than feeling angry about its history, Wales should look to it for stories of inspiration. Welsh history is not just a story of national injustice but also one of resilience, solidarity and cooperation. It is full of individuals who made a difference.

Football is part of that story but it has given Wales more than just heroes to be inspired by. In the face of internal linguistic and political divisions and the absence of self-government, the existence of national sports teams is one of the most important reasons why Welsh identity survived. As other national cultural symbols, as nonconformism and language fell into decline, sport filled a void. It gave Welsh nationality a popular outlet. It reminded the Welsh, and the wider world, that Wales was a nation. It told everyone that Wales was not part of England.

But sport could also never escape the wider political and cultural history. The difficult relationship with England was why many fans were desperate to beat England. Equality on the pitch was compensation for inequality off it. In 1999, even BBC Wales ran a rugby trailer that declared: “As long as we beat the English, we don’t care.”

The London media have been partly responsible for such attitudes. In covering both sport and current affairs, newspapers, radio and television have all had a tendency to speak to their British audiences as if they were all English. Resentment of the repeated conflation of the UK and England is one of the underpinning factors behind the growth in Welsh and Scottish nationalism. Those movements are not based on any hostility to people in England but to the dynamics of how the United Kingdom actually works.

Welsh fans aren’t desperate to beat England out of hatred or because of history. Many have family there. Others live, work or were born there. Instead, we just want to beat England to get through to the next round. But if we do win, then the difficult history between the two nations will make it a little sweeter than just qualification.

• Prof Martin Johnes is a historian of Wales, sport, politics and popular culture at Swansea University. His books include Wales: England’s Colony?

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a letter of up to 250 words to be considered for publication, email it to us at


Martin Johnes

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Will you be watching the World Cup? | Mark Perryman and Joanna Canon
Does boycotting the tournament turn it into the political football some think it is or is it all just about love of the game?

Mark Perryman and Joanna Cannon

13, Nov, 2022 @7:00 AM

Article image
Why I salute Southgate’s England – and not even through gritted teeth | Kevin McKenna
The England manager possesses qualities that epitomise our own national character

Kevin McKenna

15, Jul, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
We want to thrill to the beautiful game, but Fifa’s World Cup is toxic | Nick Cohen
The tournament has never been so blighted by politics and the taint of corruption

Nick Cohen

09, Jun, 2018 @5:00 PM

Article image
Southgate’s England team reflect the best of us. It feels good to embrace them | David Olusoga
England’s victory was delivered by a diverse, dynamic team. They and their manager can help reshape the country’s identity

David Olusoga

07, Jul, 2018 @4:21 PM

Article image
Stoking the fire: Southgate readies England to tackle Wales’ intensity
Gareth Southgate declined to comment on England being motivated by Wales’ celebrations at Euro 2016 but he is well aware of the tale

David Hytner in Doha

28, Nov, 2022 @10:30 PM

Article image
Luke Shaw motivated by video of Wales celebrating England’s Euro 2016 exit
The defender has said England would never show similar disrespect as Gareth Southgate’s side prepare for the final group game against Wales on Tuesday

Jacob Steinberg in Doha

26, Nov, 2022 @10:30 PM

Article image
Tribalism in sport is joyful. Off the pitch it’s just irrational | Kenan Malik
We shouldn’t take sides outside the arena without some reflection

Kenan Malik

01, Jul, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
Wales 0-3 England: World Cup 2022 – as it happened
Marcus Rashford scored twice, either side of Phil Foden’s first World Cup goal, as England topped the group and ended Wales’ hopes

Rob Smyth

29, Nov, 2022 @9:30 PM

Article image
Will this World Cup mark the end of football as we know it? | Letters
If the answer to the question is yes, then good riddance to the evils of sportswashing

20, Nov, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
No reason Wales can’t spring World Cup shock against England, says Bale
Captain adamant he will play on for his country no matter how their so-far miserable tournament in Qatar concludes

Ben Fisher in Doha

28, Nov, 2022 @6:41 PM