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Badger is up for the Cup

BADGER’s enjoys sports.

Cricket and rugby union for preference.

However, he has recently noticed a rapid increase in the number of people wearing bucket hats and replica Wales association football shirts.

Keen to catch up with the latest trends, he investigated the phenomenon. Imagine his surprise when he discovered that Wales not only has an international soccer team but also has one that is successful.

Narberth has never struck Badger as a particularly football-mad town. He first became aware of the fact when he visited Narberth to find the place plastered with images of Joe Allen, a football player connected to the town, who plays football for Wales. In his experience, Narberth is often crowded with the sort of people who make their lifestyle choices based on what is in Sunday supplements and Horse and Hound. Nevertheless, Badger can only suppose the middle classes have decided to indulge the lower orders and allowed them to celebrate the achievements of a local hero.

As far as Badger’s knowledge of football goes, the aim is to kick the ball into the net the other side’s goalie is standing in as often as possible without allowing them to put the ball in the net your own team’s goalie is standing in.

It, therefore, surprised Badger to find out that not only is soccer far more popular in Wales than rugby union as a participation sport but that people from Pembrokeshire support sides with no connection to the county or the area. For sure, there are local football sides – Haverfordwest County, Pembroke Boro, Monkton Swifts, Hakin – who have a devoted following; however, as far as Badger can tell, the most popular football sides in Pembrokeshire come from exotic places: Manchester, Liverpool, and some place called – of all things – The Arsenal.

Badger is dimly aware of some other football teams who appeared on Match of the Day when Jimmy Hill presented it: Nottingham County, Derby Forest, Leeds Wednesday (does Johnny Giles still play for them?), and the Tottenham Hotspurs. However, since the FA sold the game to Rupert Murdoch, he’s lost track of who is who and what team is what.

The reason for football’s popularity over rugby is not hard to find. Once the WRU decided that club rugby wasn’t working, they created regional rugby and left the clubs that made Welsh rugby great to hang.

Once you sever the ties between communities and clubs, a sport is bound to wither on the vine. The Welsh rugby regions are uniformly dreadful underperformers who wouldn’t even qualify for the leagues they play in if there wasn’t a contractual obligation to allow them to “compete” in them.

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For all the money thrown at rugby and the lingering sentiment associated with the glory days of Gareth Edwards, Bobby Windsor and the great JPR Williams, most modern rugby players fit into a type of over-muscled athletes whose ability to pass the ball has been lost in favour of running head down into the opposition.

Badger watched the weekend’s second half of the Wales-Georgia fixture from behind his paws. With the mighty Georgian pack blowing out of its arse, Wales kept kicking the ball away instead of pushing them around the field with the ball in hand.

It was, by some margin, the most dispiriting performance he’s seen since Western Samoa (not even the whole of Samoa) committed grievous bodily harm on soft and pale Welsh bodies in 1991. He remembers the crunch when Apollo Perelini mashed Richie Collins and Phil May and Tony Clement ended the game looking like a whole-body bruise.

But this was worse. Gormless and clueless, the cream of Welsh rugby – fully professional for almost three decades – lacked the nous and wherewithal to pick apart limited opponents. That’s no disrespect to Georgia, but – my goodness – Wales were dire.

Even though Wales has been mightily successful in the recent past, top-class rugby is no longer a sport open to all. You must be on a pathway, in a development squad, shepherded to conditioning coaches, and be prepared to have seven bells knocked out of your brain cells in juddering high-speed impacts. As played now, international rugby bears as much relationship to the club game as Division Five North Pembrokeshire cricket bears to England -v- Pakistan in the T20 World Cup.

Association football is different. While physical size is important, so are speed of thought and fleetness of foot. Wales faced the USA in the World Cup this Monday. The USA has a population one hundred times that of Wales, but Wales seized the draw through the boot of Gareth Bale and – in the end – pressed for the win.

In addition, there’s never been hokey thinking about Welsh football in the same way as there is in English football and Welsh rugby. There’s never been the arrogance of expecting to win. Wales is always the underdog and plays up to its image. The adoption of “Yma o Hyd” bears witness to that spirit. “We are still here” – despite everything, Wales is still here. The song yells defiance into the world.
Wales is small and proud and still fighting hard.

Welsh football’s roots still exist. There are still people bonded to the game who play at the highest level and retain local links. There are still local heroes – as a glance at any local sports coverage will tell you.

Back in the day, when Badger played a half-decent standard of cricket, he found himself bowling to Mark Delaney. Bloody hell, he was quick between the wickets, as you’d expect of someone who’d marked George Weah in the FA Cup final the week before. Badger assures you that when he pulled one of your furry chum’s slow long hops straight at square leg, he was mighty relieved and mightily impressed.
Badger knows a handful of Welsh international rugby players still turn out for some village cricket sides; Whitland is a particular beneficiary. But an FA Cup finalist turning up the week after playing at Wembley was some event. And he retains links to the reborn Fishguard & Goodwick Cricket Club today.

Badger still prefers rugby, but he can understand how and why people prefer football.
Football is the people’s game. You need a round ball and somewhere to kick it – not body armour or biceps the size of most people’s thighs – to play. You can enjoy a kickaround without being an athlete. It’s easier to imagine being Gareth Bale in your backyard than Louis Rees Zammit. And imagination is where most sports fans’ enjoyment happens.