Heading into this year’s World Cup, I was less than enthusiastic. Qatar’s record on human rights abuses, along with deep questions about the integrity of FIFA, made me question whether I would watch. But, like billions of others, I was hooked the moment the tournament started. So many great moments stand out. Messi’s amazing goal against Mexico reminded all of us why he is one of the best of all time, the German team bravely standing up to FIFA’s censorship when they took the field was inspiring, and Iran’s team not singing their national anthem to support the brave citizens of Iran who are protesting against the ayatollah’s repressive regime was a moment of courage.
While FIFA’s ban on teams wearing rainbow armbands in support of the LGBTQ community was not a moment of bravery or moral conviction, other actions lifted up the world, such as Japan’s Cinderella story and seeing their fans show amazing respect and responsibility by taking trash bags to clean up the stadium after their games.
Seeing the young American team make it to the knockout round was thrilling and gives me hope for the next World Cup. Watching the Croatian goalie stave off multiple penalty kicks was mesmerizing. And, of course, the Moroccan team beating Spain in penalty kicks reveals how anything can happen in any given game. The athletic ability on display is hard to top. Brazil’s Richarlison had one of the best goals thus far, hammering a volley shot into the net. I could keep going.
It’s the most fun seeing fans and their display of patriotism. Instead of dividing the world as fans cheer for their national team, this tournament truly brings the world together. Depending on the bracket, we can find ourselves rooting for other teams because their performance might enhance our national team’s chances.
Some stories stand out for their irony, like the Moroccan player who sealed Spain’s fate in penalty kicks happened to grow up in Spain. I love the personal backgrounds of some of the major players and the stories of how various teams have evolved over time. And, I get a kick out watching the fans. From crazy outfits to raw displays of emotion, it is just captivating.
For me, the best part of the World Cup was cheering on Wales. Wales is one of four countries of the United Kingdom. It is often not thought of with the distinctiveness of Scotland or Northern Ireland. Wales has its own language—one that has survived and evolved from ancient times. The Davis family came to America from Wales in the 1850s, and I was raised to have a close sense of connection. This was Wales’ first appearance in the World Cup in more than 60 years. The team didn’t make it far, but I was moved by the Welsh fans and their strong sense of national identity. Here’s a video of their fans, the Red Wall, singing the (unofficial) Welsh national anthem, along with its creator Dafydd Iwan, this past spring right before a victorious game that allowed the Welsh team to advance to the World Cup. The title “Yma O Hyd” means ‘we are still here’ and is a celebration of Welsh resistance to Roman, Anglo Saxon, Norman, and English rule. Wales has a population of three million people, and only about one-third of the country speaks Welsh. I have heard it spoken, as my family has audio tapes of my great-grandfather reciting Welsh sermons from a circuit minister whom he would hear as a child growing up in rural Ohio in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Welsh language was banned for nearly 400 years, as England tried to absorb Wales. Learning it has been a sign of national resistance. As this Washington Post article reveals, the citizens of Wales see their team’s progress as deeply connected to Welsh identity and have rallied behind the singer-songwriter Iwan who has been an advocate for Welsh nationalism. In fact, the next time the soccer team competes in international play, they will be identified in the Welsh language as Cymru.
Enjoy the final matches of the World Cup. It’s going to be an interesting weekend of games.
Here’s a translation of the main verses as you watch the video (note the reference to Margaret Thatcher to underscore the antagonism toward England):