The Wales vs. United States fixture is fresh in our minds. How do both nations use football to make a positive impact?
By Ameerah Mai (Academi Heddwch Cymru Coordinator)
Reading time: 5 minutes
The UK and US have enjoyed a particular closeness since the First World War, with Churchill later coining the phrase, ‘’The Special Relationship’’ in 1946. Within this, Wales and the United States have a long history of involvement and collaboration with one another. A Welsh presence in the United States is mentioned as early as 1169, with the (largely unsubstantiated) Madoc legend and tales of Welsh-speaking Native Americans. The 2008 Census recorded around 1.98 million US citizens having Welsh heritage, with 3.8% of Americans appearing to have a Welsh surname. In Wales, over 180 American companies employ approximately 30,000 people, and Welsh Government statistics in 2019 showed that the United States is Wales’ largest export market outside Europe – equating to 14.7% of exports, worth £2.44 billion (Welsh Government). As well as the close relationship, Wales and the United States share similar challenges; divisions in both our societies run deep. Much like the US, there are topics that you might not bring up at the dinner table for fear of sparking heated debate. Polarisation in the UK (and in Wales) is as prevalent as it is in the US, but where Americans may be divided on gun control or abortion, we’re divided on refugees and Brexit. Taking this all into consideration, I want to reflect on Welsh-US collaboration (in the microcosm of Wrexham FC), and ways in which both our nations are using football to make a positive impact.
The USA in north Wales: Wrexham
‘’We’re part of a bigger movement. It’s not just about football.’’Rob McElhenney speaking at a St. David’s Day event in Los Angeles, March 2022 (S4C)
This November marks two years since publications from the New York Post to WalesOnline shared the news that Hollywood would be coming to Wrexham. $2.35 million later, Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds promised to make the 156-year-old ‘sleeping giant’ Wrexham into a ‘global force’ (NY Post). The attention from Hollywood A-List actors has generated huge amounts of interest in the world’s third oldest football club. But what have they actually done for Wrexham?
The new owners, McElhenney and Reynolds, have not only embraced Welsh culture, but promoted it at every opportunity possible. This might not sound significant, but it is. Rob McElhenney (a Philadelphia native) began learning Welsh after taking ownership of the club, and Ryan Reynolds began tweeting in Welsh shortly after becoming owner. McElhenney explained that part of the reason behind learning Welsh was a desire ‘to delve into the culture and into the people as much as [he] could.’ Last week, they were presented with the ‘Diolch y Ddraig’ award from the people of Wales, for the sensitivity and respect they have shown. The Wrexham owners’ acceptance speech began with ‘Noswaith Dda,’ and ended with ‘Cymru am byth!’ On a regional level, the new owners have gone beyond their positions as club owners and used their new roles to bring about a positive change in the town of Wrexham. They’ve boosted local businesses (the infamous endorsement video of the grounds’ sponsor, Ifor Williams Trailers), donated to foodbanks in Wrexham (both by sending lump sums and by releasing an official Wrexham FC cookbook, ’20 Ways To Make Rarebit’, the proceeds of which will also be donated to foodbanks) (Twitter), and supported local artists.
Rob McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds on the launch of their rarebit cookbook. (Leader)
The United States:
On a recent exchange to the US with their Department of State (on their IVLP programme), I was shown how organisations across the US are putting aside their differences and attempting to bridge polarisation gaps to tackle societal issues. From political divisions in Washington DC from the 2020 election to historical divisions in Alabama around racial inequality, we met with groups from interfaith coalitions to political think tanks. With this lesson still in my mind – and seeing more examples of football as a mechanism for positive social change – I was curious to see if there were examples in the United States of this.
The U.S Soccer Foundation is the main charitable arm of football in the United States, and it uses football as a tool to bring about positive social change through sports-based youth development programs. Since 2015, they have built 400 ‘Safe Places to Play’ mini-pitches, collected and redistributed 1 million pieces of equipment, and invested $125 million into football programmes and field-building initiatives across the U.S. While the benefits of participation in sports is proven to be significant (U.S Soccer Foundation reports that 86% of their participants stayed away from anti-social behaviour as a result of their programmes) it is often costly to take part in a sport. The cost of buying the correct clothing, football boots, equipment, on top of accessing a facility adds up, and can be a huge factor in not participating. For this reason, the foundation focuses its efforts on deprived urban communities, where they create safe, accessible, affordable programmes. These programmes have clear health and social benefits, for example:
- 96% of community partners (‘Safe Places to Play’ programme) say their community feels safer after the installation of a mini pitch.
- 83% of ‘Soccer for Success’ participants improve their health outcomes.
We’ve seen how Hollywood actors have brought about change in Wrexham, and we’ve seen how a large football charity in the U.S. has brought about change in poorer areas, but what of Wales?
‘’Our mission is to develop a sustainable game across the country, one that contributes towards making Cymru a better place for its people, now and in the future. And we hope that whatever we achieve here becomes an example and inspiration to others around the world.’’Football Association Wales (FAW)
As I was drafting this article, the Football Association Wales announced their first Sustainability Strategy in collaboration with the Well-Being of Future Generations Commissioner – a hugely exciting step for Wales. This Sustainability Strategy, named ‘Cymru, well-being and the world’ outlines its vision for a ‘global, local Cymru’ using the Well-Being of Future Generations Act (2015) as its cornerstone. The overall aim is to use ‘the power of football to improve the nation’s well-being’ (FAW). The action plan has seven focus areas (team, health, structures, facilities, partnerships, decarbonisation and croeso) to develop sustainable and stronger clubs, leagues and initiatives. The steps involved in the strategy vary, including:
- an ACE (adverse childhood experiences) Aware Association
- a Dementia-Friendly Association
- an Association of Sanctuary
- Creating a fund for to install EV charging points at clubs
- Committing to launching plastic-free kits and merchandise
- Revising procurement processes
- Reducing flying to a minimum
- Ensuring all products are ethically sourced and Fairtrade
- Establishing swap shop schemes for sports kit and equipment
- Identifying food related sustainability solutions (e.g.: locally sourced plant-based plastic-free food packaging)
‘‘…we’re integral to Welsh Government’s vision for sport to be a part of Cymru’s story as a globally responsible nation that cares. We’ll also be working towards the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and engaging with UEFA’s football sustainability strategy 2030. One brick at a time, we’ll build a red wall at home and around the world.”Football Association Wales CEO, Noel Mooney
When discussing the motive behind the strategy, FAW explained that they want ‘to become a progressive organisation that advocates for global and local issues impacting our game and communities.’ The steps proposed in the plan are numerous and include a pilot scheme to establish a well-being football hub in a health board which will provide clinical, social care, mental health care and well-being services. This will hopefully then be rolled out across the country. Clubs and leagues will be twinned with others around the world, which will in turn encourage the exchange of learning.
Much like the Well-Being of Future Generations Act (the first legislation of its kind, which has been adopted by the United Nations and other nations), the hope with this approach by FAW is that Wales can become a leader in sustainability in the world of football. We have seen the popularity of the Welsh football team skyrocket in recent years, and FAW acknowledge that their activities should not compromise the future of generations to come, but that it should support them. In addition to this, the approach of the Qatar World Cup has seen more discussion around using football as a tool for soft power diplomacy (influencing others through appeal and attraction rather than coercion). During this World Cup in Qatar, we cannot ignore the danger of ‘sportswashing’ (where sports are used simply for promotional purposes). However, we can also acknowledge that there are pickets where football is used to bring about positive change; to draw attention to social issues, improve sustainability outcomes and national wellbeing, promote understanding and share learning. This is the kind of football I’ll be supporting.