A chilly wind whipped across the bay, ruffling the roof of the giant marquee that had materialised on the edge of Singleton Park, but the atmosphere inside couldn’t have been warmer as the Swansea section of the “Red wall” roared their support for the Welsh football team.
“Amazing, isn’t it?” said diehard supporter Paul Cullen, 34, drinking in the sights and sounds of a vibrant fan park with his three young sons, all of whom play for the Swansea academy. “This competition is massive for Wales. We are the smallest nation in our group but that doesn’t mean a thing when you have fight and passion and belief. I love it.”
When Gareth Bale equalised against the USA in Cymru’s first game at the World Cup finals since 1958, the fan park erupted. Strangers hugged, kissed and danced. The polite notices not to throw beer into the air were roundly ignored. The game ended 1-1 but few left disappointed.
“This means so much,” said a dewy-eyed Paul Carroll, 40. “I may never see the like of this tournament with my kids again. It’s the best feeling. I’m so proud.”
Just being at the World Cup after so many decades felt like a win. Before kick-off fans had jumped on tables and joined in ear-bashing versions of Tom Jones’ Delilah and Yma o Hyd (Still Here), the defiant Welsh language 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 tent 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 no matter the beer or sweat stains. Others followed rituals they hoped would bring fortune – the same pub, the same curry house they went to during Wales’s qualification campaign.
There were few here who could remember Wales’s 1958 World Cup adventure (they lost in the quarter-final to Pelé’s Brazil). Alun Jenkins, 75, was around 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.
The former Welsh goalkeeper, Neville Southall, who was in attendance to launch this Swansea fan park, said he hoped the World Cup would raise the mood of the nation. “It’s good for the people to have some hope, some joy in these pretty gloomy times,” he said.
Southall did not shy away from the sensitive issues, criticising Fifa for threatening to sanction players who wear the OneLove armband: “Why penalise someone promoting inclusivity? Football is for everybody.”
It felt a little bit 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 bucket 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 for Wales. “The whole Welsh football scene has been a reflection of a new self-confidence in the nation, especially among younger people,” she said.
“This gives us a chance to show what our strengths, our USP are. It’s a huge platform. We will be doing 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’ve got the best flag, the best anthem, the best fans. I can’t wait for the next game.”