Heady days for the Welsh as Cardiff reaches EPL
As Vincent Tan threw his arms into the air and soaked up the applause of a delirious crowd, the Malaysian billionaire owner of Cardiff could be forgiven for having a smug grin on his face.
It was only last year that Tan was a target of abuse by Cardiff fans after making the controversial - to some, desultory - decision to change the team's traditional blue shirts to red, a color considered lucky in Asia.
Supporters howled in protest, accusing him of ripping up more than a century of tradition.
How things have changed.
On Tuesday, Tan walked onto the field at Cardiff City Stadium and was feted after his team clinched promotion to the lucrative Premier League, guaranteeing that Wales will have two teams in England's top division - alongside Swansea - for the first time.
''Lucky red, you know. Lucky red,'' Tan said with a smile.
Tan, who Forbes last month claimed had a net worth of $1.3 billion through his vast portfolio of business interests, rescued Cardiff from the brink of financial meltdown when he took over the club in 2010. With Cardiff set to earn about 80 million pounds ($122 million) in its first season in the Premier League, there shouldn't be many cash flow problems for a while.
For a nation of rugby fanatics, these are heady days for Welsh football. So much so that the oval-ball game is in danger of becoming the country's second sport.
In Gareth Bale, Wales has one of the world's top footballers while evergreen Manchester United midfielder Ryan Giggs remains one of the sport's most iconic figures, still going strong at the age of 39. And while it's 55 years and counting since the national team qualified for a major tournaments, Wales is at least back in the top 50 in the FIFA rankings and showing signs of progress under its last two coaches, the late Gary Speed and Chris Coleman.
''Rugby is still very strong, we have had great success in rugby in Wales,'' said John Griffiths, the Welsh minister for sport and culture, ''but it's good to see interest (in football) built at grass-roots level in Wales, and so many youngsters wanting to play football and seeing the success of our sides.
''That Wales will fill 10 percent of the Premier League next year is a fabulously encouraging statistic for us.''
Some will find it strange that Wales can have two teams in England's top division as well as others in the country's lower leagues, yet the regular overtures of Rangers and Celtic - Scotland's two biggest clubs - continue to be resisted by English football.
However, these Welsh teams abandoned their country's league system some time ago - both Swansea and Cardiff have played in English leagues since the start of the 20th century - and the current view of FIFA is that clubs should play in the countries they are situated.
''Teams were given permission that if they were in that league, prior to the arrangements being in place, that they could continue,'' FIFA executive member Jim Boyce told Sky Sports on Wednesday. ''I think it's really good for Welsh football that Cardiff and Swansea are now in the Premier League. There are all these talks of Rangers entering England, but quite honestly I don't see that happening.''
Given where Cardiff and Swansea were a decade ago, floundering around the lower reaches of the league pyramid and in desperate financial straits, their upturn in fortunes is something to behold.
They have gone about it in different ways.
While Swansea is one of the most-used examples of a perfectly run team, living within its means and fans owning nearly 20 percent of the club, Cardiff has been pushed along by the huge investment in Tan, who took over after the troubled tenure of former Leeds chairman Peter Ridsdale ended in 2010.
Cardiff missed out on promotion through the second-tier playoffs for the past three seasons and has also been beaten in two recent cup finals - to Portsmouth in the FA Cup in 2008 and Liverpool in the League Cup last year. This time, the team has avoided the potential for heartbreak by earning the direct route to the Premier League, with Tuesday's 0-0 draw against Charlton guaranteeing a top-two finish.
Fans invaded the pitch in celebration. Grown men were seen crying and players were pulled up on supporters' shoulders.
''You probably won't be able to recreate this or get better than this,'' said Cardiff forward Craig Bellamy, who is arguably the team's most famous player after spells with Manchester City and Liverpool. ''So I wanted to soak it up and enjoy every second of it.
''We're going to be in the Premier League. What this is going to do next year to the club, to the city, it's just going to be phenomenal.''
Aside from what promotion will do to the local economy, football finance experts say the club's revenue surge will be massive, especially considering the record new television deals in place for the Premier League during the next three seasons.
''Premier League football in the 2013/14 season would generate Cardiff City revenue of around 80 million pounds, an uplift of 60 million pounds on the revenue earned during the 2011/12 season,'' said Adam Bull, a senior consultant in Deloitte's Sports Business Group.
The 61-year-old Tan has already suggested he could spend 25 million pounds on new players in the offseason as Cardiff prepares to welcome Premier League big boys Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City to its 26,000-seater stadium.
''It's about time, right?'' Tan said. ''We have to do a lot of thinking now.''