Sporting suffering in the land the EU forgot

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A few years back, you may recall, Ian Woosnam of Oswestry, England won the US Masters. Woosnam describes himself as Welsh. This caused some confusion among US golf writers. Finally, one of them said: “So where is Wales, anyway? Is it in Scotland?” There is, as Eric Morecambe used to say, no answer to that.

On Saturday, for one day only, things will be simple. Wales, an entity that has never been recognised as anything approximating a nation-state, will play a football international against mighty England. All Wales will be roaring their team on.

Then the fog will descend again. Have you ever stood back and thought about these strange islands and where nationhood begins and ends? What's English and what's British? Have you ever considered the difference between Britain, Great Britain, the UK and the British Isles? Have you ever tried to explain it to an American, or to an intelligent eight-year-old, or to one of those Olympic presenters who twittered on about “Team GB”? (That phrase fulfils the ambition of generations of Westminster politicians, by obliterating Northern Ireland from the map.)

The English worry about these fine distinctions about as much as the Americans worry about Canada. But they are deeply ingrained in the neighbours' consciousness. This week, the Welsh were gratuitously provoked when Eurostat, the EU statistical body, left Wales off the map on the cover of their yearbook. “Fury at Eurostat map slip,” stormed the Cardiff paper, the Western Mail, though the London press was merely amused. The mistake gave the new version of Great Britain a pleasingly sinuous outline, and those of us who live near the Welsh border an unexpected sea view.

When it comes to sport, the Welsh are constantly excluded. It is 20 years since the old home internationals were abolished and they have not been invited to play England since (even though Wales won the last one, 1-0). They have not reached the finals of a major football tournament since 1958. The rugby team's glory days are long gone, and last year their fans had to endure the sight of England winning the World Cup. It all makes for a very confused sporting culture: two years ago the Welsh-language television channel S4C held a poll to find Wales' most popular sportsman. And the winner was . . . David Beckham.

“At soccer, a lot of people normally follow England and a lot don't,” said Paul Abbandonato, the Western Mail's head of sport. “There are thousands of Arsenal and Man U fans, and excluding this game of course they're not going to turn against the players they support every week.

“But when England play anyone at rugby, everyone wants the other team to win. Although even then the World Cup final was a bit different because there was a feeling among some people that it was about time a Northern Hemisphere team won. And of course they do hate the Aussies as well.”

Abbandonato thinks there is a political dimension to this: the further west you travel in Wales, the more intense the anti-English feeling and the higher the vote for the nationalist party, Plaid Cymru. “The feeling is certainly different in the big cities,” agrees BBC commentator Edward Bevan. “You've got to remember there are thousands of English students in Cardiff and Swansea.”

In the days when the Welsh rugby team bestrode the game, it was easy for sport to be a unifying force, just as it was in the West Indies, when their team dominated cricket. Now there is less raw patriotism, more a resigned grievance, a chippiness that is not especially Welsh but associated with every country overshadowed by a more powerful neighbour. Canada and New Zealand suffer acutely.

And when Saturday is done and dusted, England will probably qualify for the World Cup finals and Wales will not, and their supporters will have to watch the games from the outside yet again, pondering the least worst outcome. According to Janet Ryder, who lives in North Wales: “If Scotland or Northern Ireland are playing, we'll support them, or San Marino or Luxembourg. We cheer for the small African nations when they reach the finals. We go for countries with similar qualities to our own.”

Note the “we”. Mrs Ryder comes from Sunderland, and has been in Wales for 14 years, not long enough to make her Welsh in some eyes, but long enough for her to be elected as a Welsh Assembly member on behalf of nationalist party Plaid Cymru. Confused? Welcome to England, Wales, Britain, whatever.

But it is not only residents of small nations who support the underdog. Not everyone this side of the border would mind too much if the boyos gave the big shots a bloody nose on Saturday. If it were rugby, mind, that might be different.

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