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Cardiff vs. Swansea: Rivalry and passion define soccer’s heyday in South Wales – Part I

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Mae’r gem ar ddydd sul rhwng Abertawe a Chaerdydd yn enfawr. Y Tro cyntaf I’r uwch gynghrair gael 2 clwb Cymraeg.

(Translated from Welsh: The game on Sunday between Swansea and Cardiff is huge. It’s the first time we have had two Welsh clubs in the Premier League.)

In a country where the national emblem and animal is a fiery red dragon, a game between their two biggest sports teams will be a rambunctious affair. At the Cardiff City Stadium on Sunday in Wales’ capital — for the first time ever in the Premier League — two soccer teams from the proud Celtic nation will play for bragging rights.

Swansea City and Cardiff City are fierce rivals on and off the pitch. This is the story of the region, the people are their beloved soccer teams.

PART II: A TALE OF TWO CITIES IN SOUTH WALES

The two cities, teams and sets of fans don’t like each other. I know this after spending time with both before perhaps the most eagerly anticipated derby in South Wales history. The sport is booming in the foothills of the mining mountains that have defined the tiny nation. This weekend Premier League fans will be taken into the heat of the battle when the Bluebirds and Swans clash in the Premier League’s newest, and most volatile, rivalry.

Never been to South Wales? (Or even heard of it?) You’ve been missing out on the passion, pride and tradition that emanates from the cobbled streets of Llaneli in the West across to the hills and mines of Newport in the East. Cardiff and Swansea, just 42 miles apart, defines rivalry.

RIVALRY RENEWED… NOW THE WORLD’S WATCHING

When Swansea City were promoted to the the PL in 2011, neighbors Cardiff desperately wanted the same. After reaching the Championship playoffs for three-straight years and never earning promotion, it seemed as though Cardiff’s time would never arrive.

Until last season, when it stormed its way to the Championship title and booked its place in the top-flight of English soccer, the first time both sides have been in the top league together. It was a long time coming.

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Last season Swansea won the League Cup in just their second season in the PL. That success brought European soccer to South Wales.

Throughout the height of soccer hooliganism in the 1980s and 90s in the UK, Welsh teams went through an extremely dark spell, and Cardiff and Swansea were at the forefront of the hooligan movement.

The hate spread beyond stadium terraces and into the cities before, during and after the games. Fans would fight, and rip up each others stadiums and cities. Things escalated so quickly in the 90s that a ban was put in place to stop fans of the opposition traveling to away games for over four years.

There has never been a similar ban across English and Welsh soccer.

Chairman of the Cardiff City Supporters Trust Tim Hartley recalls the dark days.

“It started getting unpleasant,” Hartley says. “I remember a very ugly evening at Ninian Park, on the Bob Bank, that was about 1993. The Swansea fans arrived late for some reason, they ripped up seats and threw them at the Cardiff fans and it was very, very ugly. The game was stopped, I think people tried to run across the pitch towards us and that was awful.”

The brutal hooliganism that riddled British and Welsh soccer and tore apart the game for decades still lingers in South Wales. The rivalry between Swansea and Cardiff will be unlike any other in the Premier League this season, no small feat given the historic and regional rivalries already in place.

This is the first time they will face each other in the 2013-14 season with both teams desperate to secure bragging rights for a few months. Obviously, there’s a lot riding on Sunday’s game.

WATCH LIVE: Cardiff City vs. Swansea City at 11am on Sunday, on NBCSN and NBC Sports Live Extra

Vince Alm, who has been a Cardiff fan his entire life and helps run the Cardiff City Supporters Club, says the infrastructure perceptions — real and perceived — play a massive role.

“There’s a rivalry between two cities anyway, without the football,” Alm said. “We’re perceived as getting everything, and honestly we do… but we are the capital city and most countries do like after their capital. There’s a lot more money invested in Cardiff than there is in Swansea, and that is visible. There’s some resentment from their point of view.”

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A program from the first-ever Cardiff vs. Swansea match in 1912, a 1-1 draw at Vetch Field.

But it hasn’t always been this way.

In 1927 when Cardiff City won the FA Cup by beating Arsenal 1-0 at Wembley, Swansea City supporters cheered on their Welsh neighbors to victory as South Wales was united in success. And for many years Cardiff’s biggest rivals were English side Bristol City, who are located just over the River Severn and provided a strong opposition for the Bluebirds. Between 1965 and 1980, Cardiff and Swansea didn’t play a single game. In 1980 the rivalry was renewed, and that’s when this current hatred blossomed according to Alm.

“The rivalry for me really started on New Years Day in 1980,” Alm said. “We played them at the Vetch, they won 2-1 and that was the first league game in a long time. From that point on, the rivalry got bigger.”

On that day David Giles, who was born and breed in Cardiff, scored the winner for Swansea in the final minute. Once he’d done that he realized the atmosphere inside the stadium had turned incredibly sour very quickly. This period of time coincided with huge unemployment and the miner strikes of the 1980s, which had a huge impact on South Wales and created plenty of social and political unrest in the region. That animosity and disdain surfaced in soccer, as the working class people of South Wales took out their frustration… on each other.

“As society had been de-industrialized there was disillusionment and alienation,” says Welsh historian Peter Stead. “An enormous element of the Welsh identity had been stripped away from us. We were known across the world for creating the best steel and coal, all that identity had gone and all we were left with was football.”

Tony Rivers, a self-confessed former Cardiff City hooligan, recalls games between the two in the 80s when he saw one fan on crutches hobbling around fighting with an opposition fan, using his crutches as a weapon.

Things were spiraling out of control.

There was an infamous story in 1988 about both sets of supporters clashing on the beach in Swansea. Cardiff’s supporters were pushed into the sea and retreated into the water. Today, that action is mocked by Swans fans who perform a fake breast stroke motion in unison to taunt their Cardiff rivals about the day they “swam away” from a fight. Current Swansea City player Angel Rangel and many others have joined Swansea folklore by using the “swim away” gesture to celebrate a goal being scored. Expect that to surface on Sunday if Swansea hit the back of the net, as new players will aim to etch their name into the rich history of the derby.

In 1991, Cardiff’s supporters almost demolished Swansea City center and in 1993, Swansea’s traveling band of fans followed suit by rampaging around Cardiff’s Ninian Park Stadium during a night game, tearing up seats and starting fights everywhere. The rivalry between the two sets of fans was now toxic, the environment was full of 18-40 year-old men who were hull bent on causing trouble.

Police had lost all control. And on Sunday, trouble could erupt. The last time a major incident occurred at this fixture, a Cardiff fan was handed a ban for throwing a coin at referee Mike Dean in 2009 when the two sides squared off in the Championship. Dean is once again the ref on Sunday… both sets of supporters have particular bones to pick with him about controversial decisions over the years. The intensity builds further.

“The Bubble,’ which you’re about to find out about, was the only option for the rivalry to return and for both sets of fans to watch the game in the same stadium. Swansea City vice-chairman Leigh Dineen hopes this Sunday’s game plays out without a flash point between both sets of fans.

“It’s still intense… the thought of losing is just incomprehensible,” Dineen says, with a grimace on his face. “I think it’s changed than what it was… I hope it has anyway. I’m hoping that Sunday is going to show over 500 million people watching around the world what South Wales is all about, that people somewhere will say ‘wow, I’d like to go and have a look at them, I didn’t really know much about Swansea or Cardiff, but what a great football match, loud and passionate.’ I’m just hoping that’s what we will see.”

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With 42.4 miles separating the Welsh capital Cardiff with second city Swansea, the rivalry between both cities escalate the hatred.

The distance between the two cities also has a huge part to play in the dichotomy of the rivalry, and how both sets of fans are so easily separated. One road, the M4 motorway, links Cardiff and Swansea along the South Wales coast.

“There’s a gap of 40 miles, which is not a massive distance but it’s big enough gap to create an us and them situation,” Alm said. “The rivalry from a city point of view has always been there, and it’s always very intense when it comes to sport, especially football. It is very passionate, it will be carried out in the most watched league in the world on Sunday, hopefully the rest of the world will be able to see what the South Wales derby is all about. It will be a bloody good advert for South Wales.”

THE BUBBLE – ERADICATING VIOLENCE SINCE 1997

The ‘Bubble’ is an extreme and revolutionary tactic implemented by South Wales police to stop the violence between fans of Swansea and Cardiff. It goes like this:

On the day of a game between Swansea and Cardiff, fans of the visiting team are not allowed to use public transport to get into the segregated section in which they’re sitting or have tickets. For instance this Sunday, Swansea’s fans will have to board specially policed buses in Swansea. No matter if you’re a Swansea fan living in Cardiff, you will have to drive 40 miles to Swansea to get on the bus. When you’re on that bus, the doors are locked, your ticket is handed to you and the 2,000 or so Swansea fans are given a police escort along the M4 several hours before kick off, with police helicopters, vans and motorcycles guiding them along the short stretch of road to Cardiff. Then they’re ushered inside the stadium, locked in, and the same process will occur to get out of Cardiff an hour or so after the final whistle and Cardiff’s fans have been ushered away.

It’s a long, drawn-out process that prevents violence. I spoke with Swansea City’s travel club and Ugo Vallario told me the bubble is necessary and vital. Without it, all hell would break loose. Cardiff fans feel the same.

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On Sunday fans will be segregated and the ‘Bubble’ system will be used to keep them apart. But will violence still break out?

“Since we played them in the Championship and now the Premier League, there are still bubble matches. It’s sad that it has to happen, but I’d prefer the inconvenience at being bussed to Swansea at 9 a.m. in the morning, rather than running the gauntlet of angry fans,” Hartley says. “Cardiff has had a particularly bad reputation, and justifiably, because in the 80s and 90s, there was football violence. The club has worked very hard to try and stamp that out.”

Cardiff’s supporters have traditionally been known across the UK as having one of the worst hooligan factions. Meaning ‘Bubble matches’ weren’t limited to just the South Wales derby.

“We have been bubbled to Wolverhampton, Leeds, Bristol. It’s awkward, miserable and spoils a good day out,” Hartley says. “Thankfully, those restrictions have now got less and less. Last year we went to Bristol without any trouble whatsoever. But Swansea for the foreseeable future will be a bubble match. Once we’re inside the ground, let’s have the rivalry there. And let’s hope to god that on Sunday there’s no incidents of violence.”

INDUSTRY – SOUTH WALES DEFINED BY SOCCER

Perhaps the violence and toughness of this particular region of Wales is epitomized by the industry which announced the tiny nation to the world centuries ago.

For generations the primary industry in South Wales has been coal mining, evident by the large pits that hang over the hills on the outskirts of both Cardiff and Swansea.

Both cities have a working-class past, and with those industries in recent decline, the area has been hit hard by unemployment and the copper industry in Swansea and the coal and steel works around Cardiff have resided into small scale operations in the mountains.

MORE: Cardiff vs. Swansea, a tale a two cites, Part II

“There are no deep mines in South Wales anymore. The last one closed about two years ago,” Hartley says. “Even though coal and steel have declined, the legacy is still here. And a lot of Cardiff City support comes from Port Talbot which is a steel town nearer to Swansea than to Cardiff, and from the South Wales valleys. One of the song’s we sing is; ‘When the coal comes from the Rhonda I’ll be there, with my little pick and shovel I’ll be there, I’ll be there, with my little pick and shovel I’ll be there.’ That’s an old mining song, we remember our roots.”

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Both clubs in South Wales pay homage to their mining and industrial pasts. I walked past this statue in Central Cardiff.

And this isn’t the only song that Cardiff sing in gusto as they pay tribute to their forefathers who fought to keep their region Welsh. The song ‘Men of Harelch,’ made famous in the 1964 film Zulu, is belted out by fans of the Bluebirds and is sure to be sung with great pride and passion as both teams emerge from the tunnel and into the fiery Welsh cauldron on Sunday.

This song is said to depict events during the seven-year siege of Harlech Castle between 1461 and 1468. It was led by commander Constable Dafydd ap Ieuan, as the garrison stood their ground in what is believed to be the longest known siege in the history of the British Isles. A rousing rendition from over 25,000 Welsh tenors with their famous pairs of lungs is sure to spark patriotism and fire into the affair right from the word go. It’s something I’m looking forward to hearing already. It should go like this, but louder and prouder.

Spine tingling moments will be broadcast to the rest of the world on Sunday, as South Wales’ success in soccer will help new people understand the pride and passion this region radiates.

Supporter Director of the Swansea City Supporters Trust Huw Cooze believes the rivalry between the two cities also emanates from the local investment, or lack of it, in Swansea. Since the mining industry collapsed, tourism and the public sector are the main sources of income for Wales. The capital is thriving, while soccer has bought Swansea plenty more income to the local economy, but not much else has.

“There’s a lot of politics involved,” Cooze said. “Wales is a small country, we believe in Swansea that Cardiff grabs 90 percent of inward investment coming in to Wales. They grab it. We’ve been left behind… we know that. It’s politics. There’s a lot more to it than that but they can be arrogant! They probably say the same about us.”

THE HEYDAY OF WELSH SOCCER, RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW

Cardiff fans did… and whether or not the two sets of fans like it, both teams are aligned much closer than many would think.

Both moved from homely, yet outdated venues to brand spanking new stadiums, Swansea from Vetch Field to the Liberty Stadium in 2005, and Cardiff from Ninian Park to the Cardiff City Stadium in 2009. Everything is in place for both teams to thrive and prosper in the Premier League, the passionate fans will always be around and now the financial goldmine that has been lacking for so long can catapult South Wales further than it ever dreamed it could go as a soccer region.

Today the headlines are about success, on the field. Flicking through the TV in my hotel room, several adverts are splashing up on every news channel about the derby at the weekend. In fact Cath Dyer, who was my adopted Welsh teacher for my brief time in Swansea, appeared at the end of one of the commercials speaking in the native tongue. When we met in the pub for the first time later that night, (more on that in part II) I recognized her from the TV. That small town feel in Swansea is evident even to a newbie like me. The community vibe is strong.

Now there are not only two Welsh teams in the Premier League, or ten percent of it as people like to keep reminding me, but they also have Newport County in England’s fourth tier of league football and Wrexham who are in the fifth tier and may well be on the cusp of joining Newport soon in League Two. There is also the Welsh Premier League for smaller Welsh teams to compete against each other, and even those sides draw decent crowds given the population of the nation. Soccer is booming.

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The world’s most expensive soccer player hails from Cardiff. Gareth Bale’s success has helped put South Wales on the map.

The World’s most expensive soccer player is from Wales, as Real Madrid superstar Gareth Bale grew up in Cardiff and honed his talents in the valleys of South Wales and the surrounding area. Soccer is on the map, and with Cardiff and Swansea City leading the way, it seems like the sport is here to stay for good.

“For many years following Cardiff City I was the butt of the jokes,” Hartley says. “People pitied me. At work they used to laugh at me coming in bleary eyed from a Tuesday night in the rain at Southend, but now the laugh’s on them. I’m the guy with the season ticket, the team in the PL, I’m the guy who can start a conversation all over the world because of my interest in Cardiff City.”

As for Swansea, their fans are in no two minds that they’re currently living through the best period in the history of soccer in South Wales. And they’re going to lap up every single minute of it.

“Club football is the best it’s ever been,” Alm says of soccer in South Wales. “It’s such a big thing in modern football to get into the Premier League, years ago in the old first division (before the PL was formed in 1992-93) all kinds of teams would come up and down. With the money about and the way the game has gone, today it’s global. It’s a fantastic achievement for cities of our size, and for Swansea they’re much smaller than us and the football that they play over the last few years has been very good to watch. It’s been great footballing wise.”

Vice-chairman of Swansea Dineen smiles and agrees that soccer is enjoying a period of glory in South Wales.

“The Premier League now has got 10 percent Welsh clubs,” Dineen says. “If you look at last year Newport came up, we won the Carling Cup, Wrexham won the FA Trophy, Cardiff won the Championship… so how could it get any better?”

How long will this soccer region continue to flourish? Who knows. But Sunday’s showdown will show the world what soccer in South Wales has to offer, as Wales’ top two teams and fiercest rivals battle it out in the English Premier League for the first time in history.

Hir y parhaed. Long may that continue.

MORE: Cardiff vs. Swansea, a tale a two cites, Part II

Report: FIFA president backs 48-team World Cup, 16 groups of three teams

ZURICH, SWITZERLAND - OCTOBER 14: FIFA President Gianni Infantino poses for a photo after part II of the FIFA Council Meeting 2016 at the FIFA headquarters on October 14, 2016 in Zurich, Switzerland. (Photo by Philipp Schmidli/Getty Images)
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Gianni Infantino wants to freshen things up a bit.

The new president of FIFA has been steadfast in his desire to increase the number of teams participating at a World Cup to 48 — after all, it was a huge part of his presidential mandate which got plenty of the smaller nations of the soccer world on board to vote for him — and reports are now circulating that he has indeed backed a 48-team World Cup from 2026 onwards.

It is also being reported by AFP that Infantino wants to try something new and have 16 groups with three teams in each, as the top two teams would go through from each group to a Round of 32 knockout stage.

On the face of it, that doesn’t seem too bad an idea.

It would certainly eliminate some of the boring third group games we have endured at most World Cups recently as the two teams going through to the last 16 are usually sewn up by that point and the two other teams are left around with another game to play. However, it will be intriguing to see how the game schedule is set up in the three team group scenario.

The cynical folks out there suggest that Infantino is merely trying to ramp up more revenue from increasing the number of teams from 32 to 48 but when you look at it, the number of games would actually stay the same if there were 16 groups with three teams in each.

Think about it: more upset stories, more first-time qualifiers and more riding on each of the two group games for each team before heading straight to the knockout rounds.

“Ronaldo, Messi too old to play for us” say Bundesliga club

Barcelona's Lionel Messi,foreground, escapes Real Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo during the Spanish La Liga soccer match between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid at the Camp Nou in Barcelona, Spain, Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
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RB Leipzig currently sits top of the Bundesliga and they’ve taken the German soccer scene by storm.

[ MORE: Ranking the PL superstars

They’ve also upset plenty of traditionalists in Germany with the Red Bull energy drink company bankrolling their rise through the German leagues and after being founded in 2009, just seven years later they are top of the Bundesliga, three points clear of Bayern Munich after 13 games of the season.

Now, Leipzig may have upset Cristiano Ronald and Lionel Messi.

Speaking to the Associated Press, the man who has been plotting Leipzig’s success since 2012, sporting director Ralf Rangnick, had the following to say about Messi and Ronaldo hypothetically signing for Leipzig.

“It would be absurd to think that it could work with them here,” Rangnick said. “They are both too old and too expensive.”

Wow.

Ronaldo is 32 and Messi is 29 and both seem to have at least five or more years left in the tank for Real and Barca respectively.

However, Rangnick’s comments are perhaps more about the make up of Leipzig’s team which is the youngest in the Bundesliga and as the architect of this squad he has purposefully constructed a strong youth element which has helped his side rise from the fourth division and up into the German top-flight.

RB Leipzig is widely disliked in Germany for being owned by Red Bull who have spent huge sums of money, and now they’ve just blown their chance of ever signing Ronaldo or Messi.

Oh wait, they didn’t want them anyway…

One man takes blame for Swansea’s poor season

SWANSEA, WALES - DECEMBER 20:  Swansea Chairman Huw Jenkins (C) attends the Barclays Premier League match between Swansea City and West Ham United at the Liberty Stadium on December 20, 2015 in Swansea, Wales.  (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
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Huw Jenkins has been with Swansea City through the good times and the bad.

He is blaming himself for the recent bad spell.

[ MORE: Ranking the PL superstars ]

The long-time chairman of the Swans — Jenkins was part of a consortium which saved the south Wales club back in 2002 when it was teetering on the brink of extinction — has been at the forefront of their incredible rise from the fourth-tier to the Premier League plus becoming League Cup winners and also competing in the knockout stages of the UEFA Europa League.

Yet, this season Swansea’s progress has stalled as they currently sit two points adrift at the foot of the Premier League table and three points from safety with a massive relegation six-points against Sunderland at the Liberty Stadium coming up this Saturday (Watch live, 10 a.m. ET online via NBCSports.com).

Speaking about their struggles, Jenkins put the blame squarely on his shoulders.

“I fully understand their feelings, being a supporter myself,” Jenkins said. “When things don’t go well somebody has to take the blame and I fully accept the responsibility. But let’s not forget there’s a long way to go this season, and we’ve got a lot of choices to make between now and then to make sure we survive in this league.”

The local businessman has told it like it is, as well as admiting some errors with player recruitment over the summer as both Andre Ayew and Ashley Williams were allowed to leave and you easily argue they weren’t sufficiently replaced at the Liberty Stadium.

All of this has led to current manager Bob Bradley (he replaced Italian coach Francesco Guidolin after the Swans picks up just four points from their opening seven games of the season) reportedly already being under pressure, as a report in the Daily Telegraph suggested that a huge review is currently taking place at the request of American owners Steve Kaplan and Jason Levein who took sole control of the club in July.

Jenkins, who has been left in control of day-to-day matters by Kaplan and Levein, has also been taking plenty of stick from the fans for selling 8.2 percent of his 13.2 percent stake in the club which allowed the Americans to take their holdings up to 68 percent and take full ownership of the club. The local businessman made himself just over $10 million in the process which angered many. All is not well on and off the pitch in south Wales right now.

With Bradley’s team conceding 19 goals in his seven PL games in charge so far, the obvious area where they have to improve is in central defense. If given time, there’s no doubt Bradley can improve that but the most concerning thing for the Swans is the quality of players, especially defenders, they currently possess.

Until that changes (i.e. acquistions in the January transfer window) then Bradley’s hands are tied.

Jenkins believes the club will be able to spend big in the upcoming transfer window and boy will Swansea need to do some shrewd, and extensive, business if they’re going to drag themselves out of trouble and up the Premier League table.

The good news out of all of this is the next six games are pivotal in their season. Between now and Jan. 2 Bradley’s side face Sunderland, West Ham and Bournemouth at home, plus have trips to West Brom, Middlesbrough and Crystal Palace. All of those games are against direct relegation rivals and quite simply the Swans must win at least three or four to give themselves a fighting chance of staying up.

Report: Alexis Sanchez offered $505,000 per week to play in China

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 24:  Alexis Sanchez of Arsenal celebrates scoring his sides first goal during the Premier League match between Arsenal and Chelsea at the Emirates Stadium on September 24, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
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This is outrageous.

Alexis Sanchez, 27, has reportedly been offered a contract worth over $505,000 a week (that’s around $26.2 million a year) to play in China.

[ MORE: Ranking the PL superstars ]

The Daily Mail claims that several clubs from the Chinese Super League have already reached out to Sanchez and have offered the huge contract to try and entice him to play in China.

With just 18 months left on his current contract at Arsenal, the Chilean forward is in the form of his life with 11 Premier League goals in the opening 14 games of the season. That included a hat trick in the 5-1 demolition of West Ham last weekend which underlined just how important “El Nino Maravilla” is to the Gunners.

Reports on Tuesday claimed that both Sanchez and Mesut Ozil (the latter also only has 18 months left on his current contract) want over $370,000 per week from Arsenal if they’re going to sign new deals. That would put them in line with the top earner in the Premier League, Manchester United’s Paul Pogba, but it is believed the Gunners do not want to break their wage structure and pay any player over $252,000 per week.

In truth, in world soccer right now only Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are above Sanchez with the Chilean forward strutting his stuff out wide and up top in a center forward role.

Ronaldo is currently paid $34.3 million per year by Real Madrid and Messi is paid $42.9 million a year by Barcelona. So, you can see why Sanchez’s head is being turned as he continues to churn out world-class displays for Arsenal and huge offers are coming his way.

With Arsene Wenger‘s future uncertain as his contract runs out at the end of this season, if he can’t entice Sanchez and Ozil to remain at the Emirates Stadium by this summer then Arsenal will have to think about selling both of their attacking superstars or else they’ll lose them for nothing in the summer of 2018.

And when it comes to China there’s no real surprise that this kind of money is being offered to Sanchez, if the reports are true.

Over the past 12 months a huge influx of foreign stars have joined the CSL with China’s President Xi Jinping a huge soccer fan and eager to not only grow the domestic game but links with European clubs and also develop top players for the Chinese national team moving forward with world-class facilities popping up and soccer is now on the school curriculum nationwide too.

Graziano Pelle. Jackson Martinez. Hulk. Ramires. Alex Teixeira. They’ve all joined the CSL in recent years on huge wages. Is Sanchez the next man to make the move if Arsenal can’t pay him what he wants, and probably deserves?