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Chicago’s proud Welsh community ready to cheer on their Dragons

It’s a video Dilys Rana has watched again and again: Welsh actor Michael Sheen, asked by a TV show host to give a mock pregame speech for the Wales-England World Cup soccer match, delivers a stemwinder for the ages.

“When the English come knocking on our door, let’s give ’em some sugar, boys!” he bellows as the stage music swells. “Let’s give ’em some Welsh sugar! They’ve always said we’re too small, we’re too slow, we’re too weak, too full of fear. But yma o hyd, you sons of speed, as they fall around us — we are still here!”

Even in the suburbs of Chicago, far from her homeland of Wales, Rana was swept away.

“It was really awesome,” she said. “Really, really good.”

Wales is making its first World Cup appearance in 64 years, and on Monday will be the first opponent for the US men’s national team. Chicago’s small Welsh community will gather for watch parties, though the real action will come eight days later, when Wales and England face off in the desert heat of Qatar.

“If the Welsh ever beat the English in any sporting contest, it is a huge national victory,” said University of Maine historian Anne Kelly Knowles, who has written about Welsh migration to Chicago. “It is one of the biggest things that can happen.”

Wales is a nation of 3 million that occupies the same island as England. Though it’s part of the United Kingdom, it has had prickly relations with its neighbor for hundreds of years: Knowles said one divisive factor in the 19th century was Parliament’s insistence that the Welsh speak English instead of their native tongue, though the hunt for better wages was the main reason many emigrated to the US

The Chicago area’s Welsh population peaked around the turn of the 20th century and led to the development of Welsh chapels, newspapers and social and fraternal organizations, Knowles wrote in “The Encyclopedia of Chicago.” As with many immigrant communities, their ethnic identity ebbed as new generations assimilated into the American mainstream, but it hasn’t faded completely.

Rana, who grew up in Wales, is president of the Welsh Cambrian Society of Chicago, an organization that is nearly 170 years old. Members get together for various events, and just recently decorated a tree for the Museum of Science and Industry’s “Christmas Around the World” exhibit.

But there’s nothing like a huge sporting event to ignite national pride, and that’s particularly true for Wales, which is in the midst of a drive to break from the United Kingdom.

The national soccer team, known as the Dragons, has been a big part of that movement. When the squad beat Ukraine in June to qualify for its long-awaited World Cup, the crowd at Cardiff City Stadium broke into “Yma o Hyd” — translated as “Still Here” — a defiant Welsh-language folk song from the 1980s that has surged in popularity.

The nation’s soccer association has also given notice that after the World Cup it plans to designate the team’s name as Cymru, pronounced “COME-ree,” as the country is called in Welsh.

Rana said Wales and its expatriates have particularly enjoyed the success of “Welcome to Wrexham,” a TV documentary that shows the exploits of a small Welsh soccer club bought by actors Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney.

“They received an award from the Welsh government for raising the profile of Wales,” she said. “We have a very strong identity and anyone who champions our causes is a champion in our eyes.”

The Dragons are led by Gareth Bale, a forward known for his distinctive man bun and once fearsome speed. After years of success and controversy in Europe, he came to the US this year and promptly helped Los Angeles FC win a Major League Soccer title with a last-minute goal.

Wales captain Gareth Bale, left, shares a joke with team mates during the Wales Training Session at Al Sad Sports Club on Nov. 17, 2022 in Doha, Qatar.

But at the age of 33, Bale is long past his best days. His transfer market value — an estimate of how much a player would fetch if he were up for sale — is only $2 million.

The entire Wales squad is valued at just $165 million, which ranks them 23rd among the 32 World Cup teams. Their old rival England ranks first, at $1.3 billion.

Games are not won on spreadsheets, however, and some experts predict Wales will make it out of its four-team group, which also includes England, the US and Iran, to reach the tournament’s knockout stage.

As for winning the entire thing? Bookies have them as a 200-1 long shot.

Long odds aside, David Parry of the Chicago Tafia Welsh Society — Tafia is a tongue-in-cheek mix of “Taff,” a derogatory nickname for a Welsh person, and “Mafia,” in recognition of Al Capone’s Welsh aide-en- camp Murray the Hump — said World Cup fever has reached a boil, both among expats like him and people back home.

Unsurprisingly, anticipation for the England game is especially keen.

“Whoever wins, they’ll be unbearable for a decade,” he said.

But win or lose, Parry said the tournament represents a chance for the rest of the world to learn about Wales, and for those who have ventured far from the Land of Castles to unify in national pride.

“If we just last those three (group stage) games, it’ll be worth it,” he said. “We’ll just take whatever we can at this point. It’s beyond exciting.”

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