Not waving but drowning

The draw for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil has put Wales in a qualifying group with Croatia, Serbia, Belgium, Scotland and Macedonia: not so much the Group of Death; more the Group of Assisted Suicide.  Since there is no prospect whatsoever of Wales winning the minimum six matches necessary to make it to the finals, the only issue will be whether interest can be kept alive long enough for the FAW to sell out the Scotland game and thus make enough money to keep councillors in the style to which they have become accustomed for another couple of years.

Such is the FAW’s calamitous mismanagement of the Welsh game that expectations are now universally set at zero.  Ranked 112th out of 206 in FIFA’s world rankings, Wales’ lowest position since the system was first introduced in 1992, we are bracketed in the bottom European pool with the no-hoper whipping-boys of the Faroe Islands (population 50,000), Liechtenstein (population 35,000), Iceland (population 300,000), Luxembourg (population 500,000), Malta (population 400,000) and San Marino (population 30,000).  The reason Wales (population 3,000,000) keeps company with these minnows is quite simple.  We have no players.  D’oh…

There is a large grey beast with flapping ears, a trunk and a pair of tusks doing something unspeakable on the conference table at FAW HQ in Splott.  Surely someone will notice it soon?  Let me spell it out for the umpteenth time.

To play football you need players.  To play international football you need professional players.  To supply professional players you need professional clubs.  To sustain professional clubs you need a professional domestic league.  To run a viable professional domestic league you need all the clubs within your geographic jurisdiction under its umbrella. You most certainly do not allow the wealthiest league in the world to operate within your borders by annexing six of your biggest clubs to its competitions and rendering your own leagues impoverished, overshadowed, peripheral and thus condemned to semi-professionalism.  The recent sorry results in the Champions League and Europa League qualifiers, which saw all four Welsh clubs eliminated before July was out as usual and an all-time record defeat for Bangor City in Helsinki, only confirm the ever-widening chasm between Wales and the rest of Europe as we blithely dispatch our frail lambs to slaughter in the world’s most important club competitions.  Bangor banked a grand total of £5,000 for winning the Welsh Premier; Helsinki scooped £1 million for being Finnish champions. No club in the world could overcome such disadvantage, guaranteed because Wales has the only domestic pyramid in the world attempting to cope with the handicap of six major absentees; and that’s why nowhere in the world bar Wales does such a situation exist.  Everyone else has sussed out the blindingly obvious and got on with the hard work of building a vibrant domestic structure that can act as a conveyor belt of players.  Little Macedonia for instance, only independent since 1991, of similar size to Wales and with a far smaller population of 2 million, had its professional league in place as a matter of priority by 1992.  Now they’ve got over 200 professional players to choose from, compared to the pitiful 50 or so at Wales’ disposal – the smallest number in Europe except for micro-state San Marino which has the population of Abergavenny, and that’s including all the rejects with a Welsh grandparent the FAW is reduced to dredging up from Ancestry.com.  That’s why Macedonia, so proud and thrilled to be part of the international football family, have already overtaken Wales (they’re ranked 96th) in the pecking order and nobody would bet on anything but a home win when the teams meet in Skopje.

For the world’s 3rd oldest footballing nation to have sunk to such depths is bad enough, guaranteeing as it does impossibly difficult qualifying groups entailing further defeats, even lower rankings and the sure and certain end of any lingering dreams of one day qualifying for a World Cup or European Championship, but what’s worse is the complete lack of outrage in Wales at this state of affairs.  Everywhere else there would be searing criticism, clinical analysis, official enquiries, action plans and root-and-branch reform.  In England, for instance, where they’ve got the world’s richest football pyramid, a phalanx of mighty clubs regularly challenging for European trophies and an international side that routinely qualifies for finals and is currently ranked 6th in the world, they are so dismayed at the state of the game a government committee has just delivered a forensic report into where it’s all gone wrong.  In Wales the most you get is a resigned shrug and optimistic noises as FAW president Phil Pritchard and chief executive Jonathan Ford top up their tans on Copacabana Beach.

But that doesn’t mean that most of the Welsh people aren’t angry at the mess we are so obviously in; it just illustrates the parlous condition of the Welsh media, itself an important part of the problem.  In Wales the broadcast media means the BBC and the print media means TrinityMirror, two monolithic monopolies with Britishness written into their DNA. Their blind, unquestioning commitment to the notion of Englandandwales is so ingrained they will always prop up the status quo.  And what a status quo it is: despite the decade after decade after decade of failure; despite the mountains of evidence from around the globe showing the FAW exactly how to organise domestic football; despite the shrieking anomaly of the six refusenik clubs…the FAW doesn’t even have a policy on the issue.

However, there is a covert, unspoken policy: to make sure the Welsh Premier is never anything more than window-dressing to satisfy the minimum requirements of FIFA and UEFA, thereby safeguarding Wales’ shaky international status and allowing FAW officials to continue to rub blazers with important people in Zurich for years to come without ever having to tackle the Cymruphobic six and their many friends in the media. All efforts are directed towards keeping up the pretence that having six of your clubs playing in another nation’s pyramid is perfectly normal and indeed “good for Wales”.   This means the selfish, parochial demands of the six Not-Welsh clubs don’t just go unchallenged but actually set the agenda to which the FAW obediently bows and scrapes.  Last month’s announcement that the English pyramid clubs can enter the Welsh Cup in the forthcoming season (Newport, Wrexham and Merthyr accepted the invitation) is merely the latest example of the FAW’s predisposition towards a very old vice: rewarding Britishness and punishing Welshness.  The Welsh pyramid is the worst-funded in Europe, subsisting on an anorexic bread-and-water diet without a crumb of assistance from the FAW and with only the cherry of European football as a possible consolation.  Now one of those four precious European places (which only exist because there is a Welsh pyramid system that the Just Say No clubs have continually opposed) could be snaffled by one of these cuckoos in the nest.  Yes, the very clubs that cause the Welsh Premier’s impoverishment are being allowed to empty the contents of the penny jar too, just in case they missed something.   The shameless hypocrisy of Newport, Wrexham and Merthyr, for whom Wales was always beneath their dignity until the prospect of some commitment-free shot at European football allowed them to make an exception, is beside the point.  What’s incredible is the FAW’s readiness to breach categorical UEFA statutes to assist these traitors: no club is permitted to operate within two separate national pyramid systems, and no club is allowed two separate qualification campaigns for the same UEFA competition.  In this case that means the Europa League, which both the Welsh Cup and the English FA Cup winners enter.  Phil Pritchard is probably hoping that his strategy of sticking his tongue deep inside Sepp Blatter’s foul orifice will now pay off, they will turn a blind eye in Zurich and the FAW will get away with this lunacy.  I’ve got news for him: I’m writing a letter to UEFA to inform them of the FAW’s transgression.  It could turn out that Newport & Co will be forced to choose between playing in the FA Cup (total prize pot £10 million + gate money+ tv money) or the Welsh Cup (total prize pot £150,000, er that’s it).  We’ll see how ‘Welsh’ they are then.

The FAW illustrates perfectly how Wales is stuck in the limbo of colonial status, a set of symbols without practical purpose taken over by a British-raised cadre to be run in their image. The oldest of all pan-Wales bodies (founded 1876), the FAW is a remnant from pre-devolution Wales with deep conservatism and unthinking subservience to England’s cause embedded in its bone-marrow.  Looking at the two figureheads tells you all you need to know.  FAW president Phil Pritchard, ex-copper and “independent” county councillor in Powys, struts the FIFA corridors of power self-importantly, sitting on committees that run the world game – although sorting out football in Welshpool is apparently not possible.  Chief executive Jonathan Ford was hired specifically as a whizz-kid “marketing guru”.  The Englishman knew next to nothing about Welsh football, but his years at Coca-Cola persuaded the FAW he was the right man for the £100,000 a year job. Well, you’ve got to hand it to the genius: he’s only been in charge for 18 months and already the Welsh Premier, the Welsh Cup and the League Cup have all lost their sponsorship deals, leaving Wales as the only country in Europe where the top-flight league has no commercial backing.  But Ford has overseen the launch of a new logo.  Result!

Ford’s legacy: a slightly more dynamic-looking dragon

For football in Wales to have any sort of future men like Pritchard and Ford must go and the entire FAW radically reconstituted so that the furtherance of the domestic game is the central objective around which all other considerations orbit.  A few straightforward steps must then be taken:

  1. Withdraw consent for Cardiff City, Colwyn Bay, Merthyr Town, Newport County, Swansea City and Wrexham to compete in the English pyramid.
  2. Inform the six clubs, the English FA, UEFA and FIFA.
  3. Place the six clubs in appropriate leagues within the Welsh pyramid starting from the next full season.
  4. Commence negotiations with the English FA for compensation for the loss of revenue caused by the absence of those clubs in the 20 years and counting since the Welsh pyramid was founded.
  5. Hire a shit-hot team of lawyers.
  6. Expect at least five years of hassle and a decade or two of building the professional game before Welsh football is at last ready for that most unfamiliar feeling: hope.