They consider themselves pretty hardy in the south Wales valleys town of Treorchy, but there were tears in the eyes of grown men and women as their country’s first World Cup finals adventure for 64 years was dealt the heaviest of blows.
Graham Jones, 76, struggled to find the words to describe his mood after watching the game against Iran in the Lion pub. “Absolutely deflated … devastated,” was his best attempt.
Jones has followed Wales since he was 13 and traveled to Sweden in 1958 to witness the last time they reached the finals. “That was wonderful,” he said. But he accepted that on Friday the Iranians, who scored two added-time goals, were the better side. “We held them off as long as we could but we didn’t finish the business.”
He cheered up at the idea of at least one more game – against England on Tuesday. “If we can beat them, that would be one of the best feelings in the world,” he said.
Despite the result, people were reluctant to criticize their team. “I still love them,” said Josie Eddy, 26. “Red wall all the way.” She said she would be helping to organize a screening of the England game at Treorchy boys and girls club next week. “Fingers crossed we can still do it.”
Her friend Melanie Green, 49, said she was gutted by the defeat. With a sad smile, she said she planned to try to get over the disappointment by finalizing arrangements for Saturday’s Treorchy Christmas parade. “Busy times – that will distract me,” she said.
Treorchy (Treorci in Welsh) and the wider Rhondda Cynon Taf area is probably still more associated with rugby in the sporting imagination, but football has become important here too. In the village of Pentre, just down the road, a blue plaque marks the house where Jimmy Murphy, who led Wales to the World Cup finals in 1958, lived.
Four miles away is Tylorstown, the village where the current Wales manager, Rob Page, grew up. Page announced the Welsh squad for Qatar at the Tylorstown miners’ welfare hall. Recalling his early playing days, Page told the Guardian: “You’d see the wind and the rain driving down the valley and you’re freezing cold. You’d be ankle-deep in mud. Great memories. It shapes you.”
Treorchy certainly threw itself behind the Wales team on Friday, the high street a blaze of red. The Welsh clothing and gift shop opened early to sell last-minute clothes and flags. “You can’t watch the game without a bucket hat. It’s the law,” said one customer, Jeff Edwards. Even the skeleton in the chiropractor’s wore a bucket hat and a Wales shirt.
At Treorchy comprehensive, the receptionist Christine Howells was resplendent in her bucket hat sitting behind a desk surrounded by Welsh flags. She had three screens in front of her to watch the match. “Just in case one or two break down,” she said. The school’s welfare dogs, cocker spaniels Boo and Lottie, wore Welsh bandanas.
Students watched the game in the main hall, a sports hall and the gym. The headteacher, Jenny Ford, said she was glad the Welsh government had given schools the option to watch the game. “It’s been a long time coming for Wales to get to the finals so why not?”
The school is big on promoting “cynefin”. There is no direct English equivalent, but it is described in the Welsh curriculum as “the place where we feel we belong, where the people and landscape around us are familiar, and the sights and sounds are reassuringly recognisable.” Ford said: “Coming together for the match is part of that feeling.”
Teachers have been discussing with students the human rights controversies that have swirled around the tournament in Qatar, including the wearing of the OneLove armband. “We’ve challenged our students to think what should Gareth Bale have done,” said Ford. “There have been some excellent discussions.” Some students decided not to watch the game because of the human rights issues. “That’s their right too,” Ford said.
The students joined in a rendition of Yma o Hyd (Still Here), the defiant Welsh-language folk song that has been adopted by the squad and has become a fan favorite, before standing for the national anthem. And although the result went against Wales, students will not forget the day in a hurry.
“The atmosphere and passion was amazing,” said 14-year-old Seren. Luca, 15, added: “It was a privilege to be watching the game in our school. It’s a good chance for everyone to bond.”
Kian, also 15, said: “Watching the football brings everybody together.”