One lad was wearing an FC Barcelona shirt and another a Swansea City top. But the vast majority of the young footballers training on the pristine 3G pitch as a salty breeze whipped in from Carmarthen Bay were in the vivid red of their local semi-pro club, Llanelli Town AFC, or that of the Welsh national shirt.
Eight-year-old Noah paused for a chat and named his favourite players as the Welsh team’s poster boys, Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey. “They’re both brilliant,” he said. “It’s great to watch them in the Euros.”
The success of the Welsh football team in Euro 2020 is gripping a nation traditionally better known for its rugby. Come 5pm on Saturday, the streets will empty and the fans – the “red wall” (y wal goch) – will find a bar or living room to watch Bale, Ramsey and their teammates take on Denmark for a place in the last eight. Expectation is growing that Wales may emulate, or even surpass, their run to the semi-finals of the competition in 2016.
“Football is thriving here and across Wales,” said Simon Thomas, the community development officer for Llanelli Town. “It’s great to see.”
Thomas, Llanelli born and bred, accepts that the town in south-west Wales is still predominantly a rugby one. Scarlets, one of the country’s four professional teams, are based in the town. “But football is becoming much more of a mainstay,” Thomas said. “There is more grassroots football than rugby in the town and more children are playing football than rugby.”
Llanelli Town AFC run more than 20 sides for juniors, veterans, women, people with disabilities – 300 children and 200 adults. “Everyone is welcome,” Thomas said.
Parents watching the session on the 3G pitch this week agreed that football was becoming as important as rugby. “It’s beginning to flip,” said Stuart Northcote, father to nine-year-old Tom. “There are brilliant facilities – 3G pitches, football camps and so on. There’s also a perception among parents that it isn’t as dangerous as rugby, with all the concerns over head injuries.” But it is also undoubtedly being boosted by the success of the national side. “That certainly helps,” he said.
In the town centre there is a mural commemorating the town’s most famous sporting moment, when Llanelli rugby club beat the New Zealand All Blacks in 1972 and – in the words of the Max Boyce poem commemorating the win – “the pubs ran dry”.
But at a barber’s shop in the shopping centre, Tammy Rees has created a display of footballs and Welsh flags. “I’ve got sons so I can’t avoid it. I may as well embrace it,” she said.
They have sold out of bucket hats at the Welsh shop in the market. “We can’t get enough of them in,” said David Beale. He puts the success of the team down to inclusivity. “You can see the players are in it together. The fans see that and respond to it.”
Inclusivity is the word used time and again by Welsh fans. Carys Ingram, a co-chair of the Rainbow Wall, Wales’ supporters’ group for members of the LGBTQ+ community, said the team and supporters’ motto “Together Stronger” was not a soundbite.
“Wales is so successful on and off the pitch because of our togetherness,” Ingram said. “Together Stronger is not just a punchy tagline for our team, it’s a way of life. We’re only a country of 3 million but the pride we feel when putting on our Wales shirts is something you cannot describe. We are one massive family, no matter your skin colour, sexual orientation, gender, physical ability or background.”
Hales Evans, who has set up a business selling Welsh football shirts for women, said supporting Wales was always a party. “There’s never any trouble.” She has travelled widely with Wales for 20 years. “We take an interest in the local culture, do the walking tours, see the sights. Obviously there’s quite a lot of drinking too, but we’re keen to represent our country properly.”
Charles Ashburner, who runs Mr Flag in Swansea, said he had noticed a change in what fans were looking for. In 2016 he sold countless generic flags and Welsh dragon bunting. This time people are asking him for customised flags. “There have been many more who want the word ‘independence’ on their flags, or slogans in Welsh rather than English.”
Ffred Ffransis, a prominent member of the pressure group Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg – the Welsh Language Society – highlighted that the Football Association of Wales was describing the team as “Cymru”. “Football is increasingly a way in which people and communities in Wales are asserting their identity and place in the world,” he said.
For this campaign, Cadw, the Welsh government’s historic environment service, has set up dragon plinths celebrating members of the 2021 Cymru squad at sites such as castles and abbeys. The defender Joe Rodon is being celebrated down the road from Llanelli at Kidwelly Castle.
The Plaid Cymru deputy leader, Rhun ap Iorwerth, a football fan who followed Wales in France in 2016, was wary of bringing politics into it all. But he said: “The belief in Wales’s ability to succeed on and off is growing, and while there’s always a danger of over-politicising sport, it is a positive platform for many to express our aspirations for our nation – whilst in the more immediate future willing the ball into the back of the net as football fans.”