19 June ~ Club v country? It's an age old debate, but one that has been settled in Wales. Quite simply, the club now wins every time. Last month saw Swansea City beat Reading at a packed Wembley Stadium. They were cheered on by 40,000 passionate supporters, with the chorus of Hymns and Arias ringing round the stadium. Three days before, the Welsh national side finally won under Gary Speed in the Nations Cup. The game was played in front of 529 spectators, of whom less than half were Welsh.
Admittedly, these are only two extreme examples. One a play-off final for the right to be in next season's Premier League and the other a meaningless match played in a neutral country by two teams trying to avoid the wooden spoon in a competition that has failed to catch the public's imagination. However, it is indicative of the way the fortunes of Wales's national and club sides have polarised over the last few years. It was always said that a strong Cardiff and Swansea could only benefit football in Wales. But now that both have achieved relative recent success following years of stagnation in the lower leagues, the national side has plunged down to 114th in the FIFA rankings.
This decline has been mirrored by a fall in public interest. While the Euro qualifier with England saw a predictable sell-out at the Millennium Stadium, very few of those fans will bother to watch the autumn matches at home to Montenegro and Switzerland. One will be played at Swansea and the other Cardiff, and attendances will be less than half of the numbers that turn out to watch the club sides. Swansea are likely to sell out every home game. And Cardiff will still play in front of around 20,000 people next season, despite being without a manager and having lost some of their best players. It's somewhat ironic that Premier League stars such as Ramsey, Hennessey and Bale will find themselves playing to bigger, more passionate crowds when they play in Wales against Swansea than when they represent their country.
Can anything be done to shift the current balance back in favour of the national side? In the longer term the increased profile that a successful Swansea and Cardiff will bring to football in Wales will undoubtedly be of benefit. The increased media exposure and finance will help speed up the current process whereby football in South Wales is replacing rugby union in the public psyche as the national game. In the shorter term, however, the Welsh national team will only get close to matching the support and interest generated by the country's two most prominent clubs by winning some games and giving the public something to cheer. Paul Ashley-Jones