When the Cymru men’s football team qualified for the FIFA World Cup earlier this year, the first thought of Gareth Bale and the delirious, rain-soaked players was to summon folk singer Dafydd Iwan out onto the pitch to lead an impromptu chorus of Yma o Hyd, a 1980s protest song adopted as the unofficial anthem of the team and its supporters. There are few places like Wales where sport and culture are so entwined. And there are few countries like Wales where reaching football’s biggest tournament would inspire a nationwide arts festival.
With the World Cup Finals upon us, the Football Association of Wales has teamed up with Welsh Government and Arts Council of Wales to create Gŵyl Cymru Festival, over 200 creative events taking place across the nation to celebrate the team’s achievement in reaching the World Cup for the first time since 1958.
Gŵyl Cymru Festival’s reach extends to the biggest cities and the smallest villages. Gigs by local bands in community-run pubs, comedy nights in grassroots football clubs, and singalongs before match screenings all form part of the festival programme, alongside projects from some of Wales’s most important national arts companies. Gŵyl Cymru Festival is about people and their communities creating artistic moments for themselves, all in support of the team. It’s led by the national team’s fans – the famous Red Wall, or Y Wal Goch.
Nothing demonstrates what the festival is about better than the Oasis centre in Cardiff, an organisation supporting refugees and asylum seekers, whose members will collaborate with the world-renowned Welsh National Opera to create a stirring musical moment in the build-up to one of Cymru’s matches.
Gŵyl Cymru is a festival that embraces community and celebrates diversity. Where the local meets the global. A nationwide comedy tour in the build-up to the tournament will feature a Welsh comedian lining up against fellow acts from Japan, France and England, ensuring an international flavour. Iranian folk singers, exiled from their homeland, will perform at events in the build-up to Cymru v Iran alongside Welsh acts. It is a chance for the nation to open its arms to the world and also to reflect Wales’ best values internationally. FOCUS Wales gigs in New York and Montreal will showcase urban acts Lemfreck and Mace the Great, and the Red Wall’s official brass band The Barry Horns will blast out fan favourites in Dubai.
Of course, this World Cup, played in Qatar, is shrouded in controversy. Gŵyl Cymru acknowledges this, and organisers want the festival to give a voice to everyone here in Wales, especially women (Ynys Plastig’s community arts events in north-west Wales specifically consider women and the World Cup) and those from our LGBTQ+ community. The festival consulted with The Rainbow Wall – the group representing Wales’ LGBTQ+ supporters – early on to ensure they had a platform. Among Gŵyl Cymru’s artistic highlights will be August 012’s collaboration with the Welsh Ballroom Community, FootBallroom, celebrating queerness in all its forms and exploring its relationship with football, all to the sweaty rhythms of 1970s American ballroom culture.
“Like great trees starting life as seeds; here we give dreams room to take root.” These words by National Poet for Wales, Hanan Issa, in The Crowd Gathers, her poem specially commissioned for Gŵyl Cymru encapsulate what the arts and football give to a small nation. Gŵyl Cymru and the nation’s footballers will hope to make those dreams come true.