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Cardiff and Swansea in the Premier League would help Wales go global
Jamie Jackson - 3 years ago

"Should Cardiff City, Swansea City or both make it to the top flight, it will no doubt raise the profile of Wales among football fans and others" Carwyn Jones, first minister for Wales

"The national game in Wales is not rugby. There is no doubt about it that the national game is soccer" Peter Rees, president of the FA of Wales 2006-09

"Cardiff City could be as big as Barcelona" Sam Hammam, the club's former owner

Gareth Bale, of Tottenham and Wales, is the talk of football across the continent following his magnificent Champions League displays home and away against the European Cup holders, Internazionale. Tomorrow it is the chance of the principality's two biggest clubs to take centre stage, when they meet in front of a sellout crowd in a Championship game deemed big enough for live televised coverage on BBC1. If Bale's hometown team, Cardiff City, or their great rivals, Swansea City, were to gain promotion to the Premier League the profile of football in Wales would explode globally. And, according to stakeholders who spoke to Observer Sport, that eventually it could pose a serious threat to rugby, which has long been considered the Welsh national game.

It is sure to be a fiercely contested derby. Swansea are third, six points behind Cardiff who, led by local hero Craig Bellamy, on a season loan from Manchester City, are top of the table.

"This is a great derby for south Wales. We've got both teams doing well," says Bellamy. "When I was watching derbies there was a couple of thousand people and we were both struggling really bad and it was probably the only thing we both had to look forward to in the season. It's a lot different now. We're both doing really well and for Welsh football in general it's a great period.

"These are two good teams. Two Welsh teams are going to be able to go at each other at a level to try to get to the Premier League. That's a big incentive for everyone."

"It's one of the biggest derbies we've had for years," says the Swansea chairman, Hugh Jenkins. The Swans, under John Toshack, were relegated from the old First Division in 1983 after their only two seasons of top-flight football. The last of Cardiff's nine campaigns at elite level was in 1962. Until recently financial oblivion, rather than prosperity, appeared the more likely prospect for Wales's two largest clubs.

In 2003, two years after Swansea were sold for £1 and the Swansea City Supporters Trust was formed, the club were within one defeat of relegation from the Football League – a fate that has befallen two other Welsh clubs, Newport County and Wrexham. Hull City were beaten 4-2 at the ramshackle Vetch Field on the final day and Swansea escaped.

Jenkins says: "Since we got the new ground [the Liberty Stadium] five years ago we've been moving forward and here we are in the Championship challenging for promotion, which is a fantastic achievement.

"We have certain principles. There's not much common sense in football. There used to be a way of working that still exists [elsewhere] that every time a new manager came in there seemed a different focus. That's generally a recipe for disaster. A club is like any other business, it has to work in a way from top to bottom that makes it irrelevant who is the manager. Yes, you need a good manager but the main ingredients have to be there constantly. If we get up into the top six of the Premier League and then challenging for the Champions League, others may take notice. "

Two managers, Kenny Jackett and Roberto Martínez, led Swansea from their near-non-League experience to where they are now, before Brendan Rodgers took over.

The Trust own a fifth of the club and according to Phil Sumbler, the Trust chairman, Swansea have a tight budget, "within the bottom half a dozen" in the Championship, operating on a player salary bill of £6m-£7m. The careful budgeting has not stopped Swansea moving up through the divisions.

Cardiff, who moved to their own new stadium last year, are still wrestling with tangled finances. Sam Hammam became owner in 2000 and was initially a populist fans' favourite but after plans to build a 60,000-capacity stadium were rejected by the local council in 2006, Hammam was replaced by Peter Ridsdale.

The former Leeds United chairman headed a consortium that bought out Hammam and oversaw a confused spell during which City were sued in 2008 over a £31m loan, then taken to task over unpaid taxes and other debts. Three months ago Dato Chan Tien Ghee, Cardiff's Malaysian chairman who joined the board in November 2009, finally secured the club's future following the payment of a £1.3m tax bill.

This apparent new stability had been preceded by Cardiff narrowly missing elevation to the Premier League last season, when they lost the play-off final 3-2 to Blackpool.

"It was the worst feeling I've ever had in my life. Just desperate, horrendous," says Mike Hall, a Bluebirds director who has a different perspective than many in football's boardrooms. He captained the Wales rugby union team at the 1995 World Cup.

Hall – who says "we've been top before and fallen away" – is more reticent than Jenkins and his stated ambition of challenging for Champions League football at Swansea. But they agree that football is accelerating beyond rugby in Wales to become the more popular game.

Swansea's co-tenants at the Liberty, the Ospreys rugby union team, are playing to disappointing crowds. Sumbler says: "They average about five-to-six thousand. At international level rugby is the national sport but at club level definitely football is far more watched."

Cardiff share their stadium with the Blues rugby team and Hall, who won 42 caps for Wales and is a summariser for BBC Wales, voices concern regarding his former game. "The advent of regional rugby hasn't really caught the public's imagination so you don't get the big crowds as at the old club games," he says. "You can blame that on regional rugby, television, apathy but for whatever reason it has just lost its direction a little bit.

"Wales is only a small country and doesn't have a huge economy so in terms of sponsorship and commercialism, football would drag a little bit more out of that."

Unsurprisingly, John Feehan, the chief executive of the Magners League in which the Ospreys and Blues compete, defends rugby's profile. "There are more people going through the turnstiles than ever before," he says. "The television audiences are also increasing. We've doubled the number of people going to our website this year. So, by almost any measure, it's improving."

Are Cardiff and Swansea competitors or is there space for both sports? "As far as the Magners League is concerned it's vibrant," Feehan says. "Generally, soccer is a very popular sport in almost any country but rugby is still the national sport of Wales by a long shot."

Roger Lewis, the chief executive of the WRU, has no concerns. "The Welsh Rugby Union is in great shape. We announced our latest financial figures a couple of weeks ago and we had record revenues, distribution and investment into the game. We own the Millennium Stadium and have reduced its debt to its lowest level with a clear plan to be debt free. With regard to other sports we take a bigger picture view – our relationship with the FA of Wales and Cardiff and Swansea is very good. Any sport in Wales that can capture a UK and global audience we would support. We need to position Wales as a truly international player in global sport."

Lewis takes issue with Hall's observations regarding the lower attendances at club rugby and that the sport has lost its way, despite the popularity of the national team. "If you added up all the people who watched rugby in Wales it's far greater than watch soccer. It is the national sport of Wales."

Peter Rees, a former president of the FA of Wales, disagrees. "Football is played more in Wales than rugby – this is fact," he says. "And there are far more football clubs. The national game in Wales is not rugby. There is no doubt about it that the national game is soccer."

Promotion for Cardiff or Swansea would represent a substantial advance for the sport, he says, and Bellamy's arrival has helped. "He's a Cardiff lad now playing in Cardiff so his profile is higher than it was before. The Premier League is on television week in and week out. If either Cardiff or Swansea or the two of them get in there the local kids will have icons of local players."

Sir Terry Matthews, who hosted Wales' inaugural Ryder Cup last month at Celtic Manor, believes the government would be keen to harness any success. "We all know that Premier League soccer gets monster media exposure," the billionaire businessman says. "The important thing is that it's not just confined to the UK. I travel a lot to India, China and other countries in the Far East on business and there is a big interest in Premier League football in all of these nations.

"We saw with the Ryder Cup how that level of media exposure could raise the profile of Wales globally. I'm sure the Welsh assembly would work hard to maximise the benefits of having a team in the Premier League."

Carywn Jones, the first minister for Wales, concurs. He tells Observer Sport: "It's a fantastic tribute to the sporting heritage of Wales that two of our clubs are doing so well in the Championship. While it's still too early in the season to make a call on how they will fare should Cardiff City, Swansea City or both teams make it to the top flight, it will no doubt raise the profile of Wales among football fans and others."

This is comment. GNM does not necessarily support the views expressed.

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