56 years of hurt (and counting)

The World Cup is proving to be fab(iano)! As a soccer aficionado I have found even the defensive and dour games fascinating tactical battles, whilst the pulsating, attacking games have had me ululating like an orthodox Jew at the Wailing Wall (my poor next-door neighbour – and he’s only just getting over a quadruple by-pass). Some of the football has been sensational, and to add to the pleasure have been the myriad sub-plots, the marvellous stadiums and camerawork, the buzz of swarming vuvuzelas, the ritual English torment, the Latin American surge and the deflation of all the English Premier League’s over-hyped millionaires, one by one.

The quarter-finals (Uruguay v Ghana, Argentina v Germany, Brazil v Holland, Paraguay v Spain) begin tomorrow, and I can’t wait. I don’t care who wins, having a fondness for all eight, so long as skill and creativity come out on top. So far, that means I’m favouring Argentina who, with the hypnotising Messi on the field and the magnetic Maradona on the touchline, have been the great entertainers.

As the tournament pauses for two days before building to its entirely unpredictable climax, thoughts inevitably turn to the prospects of Wales ever again qualifying for the finals. It hasn’t happened since 1958, meaning it will be at least 56 years before it can happen again. This is already the longest gap since last qualification endured by any footballing nation on the planet except for Cuba and Indonesia (they both last appeared in 1938), and there is no prospect whatsoever of Wales ever qualifying again until we attend to one small, technical detail: get some full-time players.

Proportionately, and in absolute numbers except for statelets like Liechtenstein (population 35,000) and Faroe Islands (population 48,000), Wales manager John Toshack has a smaller pool of professional footballers to choose from than any other country in the world – less than 100 Welshman play football for a living. Compare this with quarter-finalists Uruguay. They have a similar population of around 3 million and fewer football clubs and registered players (Wales 1,900 clubs, 67,000 players; Uruguay 1,200 clubs, 42,000 players). Yet there are over 2,000 Uruguayans playing pro football, in their domestic league and around the world. There is only one reason why Wales is incapable of doing what everywhere else finds pretty straightforward: it does not have a professional domestic league to produce the players. And the only reason Wales doesn’t have such a league is because the biggest clubs in Wales refuse to participate in it, leaving the Welsh pyramid system uniquely handicapped and stuck in semi-professionalism. The Welsh Premier (WP) is forever crippled by the absence of any clubs from Wales’ biggest cities and soccer centres and as a result is Europe’s poorest national league – with its member clubs doing well just to survive let alone grow into professional outfits. Cardiff is in the shameful position of being the only capital city on the planet that does not have a team playing in its national football league – a state of affairs that would cause an outcry the whole world over, but here in Wales is seen as natural and unquestionable, while those who suggest (gasp!) that Cardiff City should play in Wales rather than England (ie: me) are treated as lunatics and marginalised. So Cardiff City plough on in England as a debt-riddled property developer according to the English model, geared to wheeling and dealing as a selling club in the English transfer market and thus only ever developing Welsh players as an incidental extra rather than as the main priority. That’s why, of all the capital city clubs in Europe, it has produced the least international players for its own nation.

Worse still, Cardiff City and the other five Anglo clubs in Wales act as cuckoos in the nest, sucking all the resources, media attention and life out of the Welsh game for the sake of their absurd and treacherous Little England strivings. Like an overgrown Leylandii conifer hedge they hog all the light and nourishment leaving their surroundings starved and dying. Hence not only does the city provide no club to Wales’ national league, it also blights the whole of the Cardiff catchment area, the most populated in Wales, meaning there is not a single WP club in all of Gwent and the Glamorgan valleys either. Try to imagine the English Premier without a club from London and the south-east of England, and you begin to approach the insane reality.

Nothing is permitted to disturb this “consensus”. The FAW, the 3rd oldest football association in the world, doesn’t even have a policy on the matter, stuffed as it is with deeply reactionary men-in-blazers, and alone in the world resists the idea of a professional domestic league – something the poorest nation on Earth, Niger, manages to accomplish without too much difficulty. Click on BBC Sport’s ‘Welsh football’ link and you will arrive at pages all about Cardiff City et al (already covered in the English pages, so alone in the UK they get the special privilege of double coverage) and next to nothing about the Welsh pyramid. The Assembly Government is so cowed and neutered it can only follow rather than lead, resulting in the grotesque site of Plaid Cymru’s Alun Ffred Jones, Heritage/Sport Minister in the Labour/Plaid coalition at the Senedd, jumping on the Cardiff City bandwagon when they got to the play-off final and stating that Cardiff in the English Premier would be “good for Wales”. And this is a man who boasts about defending Welsh interests!  As for what passes for the Welsh print media (unread by 90% of the population anyway), well yesterday’s Western Mail encapsulates the problem perfectly. On the day Llanelli and Port Talbot Town began their Europa Cup campaigns in the qualifying round, as representatives of Wales having come second and third in last season’s WP, the “National Newspaper of Wales” had not a single word about these important games in the second most lucrative club competition in world football. Not even the fixtures were printed! Space was found, though, for three pages of dull speculation about Cardiff City’s close-season boadroom machinations and Sports Editor Paul Abbandonato’s hackneyed and lacklustre World Cup musings. It would probably have been ‘Abandon-Hope-All-Who-Read-This’ himself who decided to ignore the Europa matches. Under his watch Media Wales never prints anything that might boost the WP, cast doubt on the status quo, or suggest that there is a football world beyond Scunthorpe.

Until Wales has territorial integrity and all the football clubs within its boundaries play in its pyramid system, we will not create the network of professional clubs required to develop the constant conveyor belt of hundreds of footballers decade after decade that every country needs. We will have to keep depending on the occasional lucky one-off developed by an English club (eg: Ryan Giggs) and keep scratching around for English players with a Welsh grandparent who would never be capped by their own country. Unless there is change this will mean that Wales will never be able to field an international quality XI and thus will never, ever qualify for the World Cup finals again. And I will die of a broken heart.

Postscript:  Tonight’s results: Llanelli 2 Tauras (Lithuania) 2; TPS Turku (Finland) 3 Port Talbot Town 1 – both are still in with a chance going into next week’s second legs.