TENERIFE, Spain – Bethany Evans’ first experience watching Wales at the World Cup had many of the key components she had always envisioned. By her side were her friends and her father Mark, 59, with whom she has followed Wales over land and sea.
All around them, Welsh fans were decked out in the country’s red jerseys and bucket hats, and draped in dragon-crested flags, underscoring the fans’ nickname: The Red Wall.
And then there was alcohol – lots and lots of alcohol. His absence has been a major topic of discussion since Qatar’s decision to ban beer sales from the tournament’s stadiums. But it was served here unabashedly as fans sang, jumped and roared, weaving their way through two sunken street-corner bars in Tenerife in the Canary Islands.
“The planning was really amazing,” said Evans, 25, a health and safety manager from Pontypridd in south Wales, whose summery tweet suggesting a viewing party on that island grew into something more than she could have ever imagined.
While Evans originally dreamed of taking part in the World Cup in Qatar himself – Wales have qualified for the first time since 1958 – she said a combination of costs, circumstances, rules and moral issues ruled that out. Instead, they and thousands of other Welsh fans have chosen to make this affordable party island some 4,000 miles from Qatar their home for the tournament.
Fans have flocked to Tenerife in their thousands this week hoping for the kind of sun-kissed World Cup celebration they’ve always craved – on their terms and on their budget.
“I’m just disappointed that our first time at the World Cup isn’t for workers,” said Lee Chamberlain, 50, a painter and decorator from Mold, North Wales. Chamberlain said a travel agent offered him two options: three or four days on a tight budget (and drinking rules) in Qatar, or 10 days in one of Tenerife’s nicer hotels, all inclusive. It was child’s play, he said.
That fans from a tournament-hungry nation like Wales have been discouraged en masse from traveling to Qatar speaks volumes about the motives of the footballing powers, many Welsh fans said.
Aside from the host country, which qualifies automatically, Wales are the longest absentees of all this year’s World Cup participants, the last time being 64 years ago, when coverage was more difficult and traveling fans virtually non-existent.
“It made me very proud to think that I was there to see them,” said Les Thomas, 90, from Kerry, who was able to attend a match at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden when he was with the Brits in the Abroad served Navy. Thomas said he only saw a small group of Welsh fans at the other end of the stadium that day.
In the decades that followed, that tournament – and those who attended and competed in it – achieved mythical status in Wales, a hilly nation of about three million people. Generation after generation failed to qualify for the next big championship on the horizon, culminating in the low point of 2011 when Wales slipped to 117th in the world, behind nations like Guatemala, Guyana and Haiti.
But as Wales continued to nurture generations of talent from those depths, new stars such as Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey emerged. She and her teammates reached the semi-finals of the 2016 European Championships and again qualified for the next edition, which was held last summer. All the while there was growing optimism of reaching Qatar.
After Wales sent Ukraine into a World Cup playoff in June to secure their spot, an ecstatic Evans began weighing her options.
“I wasn’t fully aware of some issues until they came to light,” she said of the concerns that have dogged Qatar’s preparations for the event. “I think I and probably many others are very ignorant of what’s going on in other countries because we don’t really hear about it until an event like this happens.”
Wales, like many competing nations, have criticized Qatar for hosting the tournament. The team’s captain, Bale, was supposed to wear a rainbow-colored armband in support of the LGBTQ community, only to opt out at the last minute after FIFA threatened disciplinary action against anyone who did so. Welsh players have been given the freedom to speak out on such issues if they wish. And ahead of the tournament, some staff at the Football Association of Wales reportedly refused to travel to Qatar because of its anti-homosexuality laws.
For Evans, however, the biggest deterrent to a World Cup trip to the Gulf was the price, as she estimated a week in Qatar would set her back around £3,500 (about US$4,100). She sent a tongue-in-cheek tweet saying Qatar was too expensive and she was looking for an alternative – “somewhere hot” – like Tenerife, a trip she estimated at about a quarter the cost.
After some fans said they liked the idea and it gained momentum, Evans was invited to discuss it during an appearance on a Welsh news programme. That led to a Facebook group that has more than 2,400 members as of this week. There, fans discussed their travel plans, exchanged drink deals they had negotiated with bars and talked about the virtues of Tenerife. When the organizers of FIFA and Qatar surprised fans on the eve of the tournament by announcing that they would not be selling beer in the stadiums, they even joked that they made the right choice by choosing Spain early.
“I know maybe it’s a bad thing to say about football, but you have to drink and have a good time, too,” said Tyrone Fowler, 28, a Newport-based caterer. South Wales, who went to Tenerife this week. “It’s about creating atmosphere.”
During Monday’s opener against the United States, Welsh fans found a touch of home in the palm-lined Costa Adeje in and around adjacent sister bars The Original Wigan Pier and La Flaca, who, at Evans’ request, had agreed to host fans and shut down games Wales to host televisions.
Cocktails had been given Welsh names and the Welsh flag covered many of the bar’s walls and trees outside. In one corner, a catering company had brought food while extra beer had been ordered to accommodate more than 400 attendees, who could fit into the two facilities. Beer, at just a few euros, was far cheaper than the reported $14 for a pint in Qatar.
An estimated 3,000 Welsh fans are expected in Tenerife over the next week or so to fill bars and restaurants in Costa Adeje, near Playa de las Américas and other coastal towns across the island.
When the final whistle blew in Monday night’s 1-1 comeback draw with the United States, Welsh fans stood up in relief and sang their adopted anthem “Yma o Hyd,” a folk song published by nationalist singer Dafydd Iwan in the 1980s, which translates to “still here”.
For Evans and those around her streaming out later into the night, Tenerife might not have been Qatar, but it really could have been anywhere as long as it looked and felt this good.
“It’s just a family event,” Evans said before the game, reflecting on how her simple suggestion had brought so many like-minded fans to this sunny island 1,700 miles from home. “You may not know her, but in a way you still know her.”