Thursday, September 10, 2020

Don't Take Me Home

THE RED DRAGONS' 2016 MIRACLE IN FRANCE

Wales is a backwater. It sits on the edge of the UK and almost on the edge of Europe. 

It was founded by Celts fleeing the invading Anglo-Saxons. Its name means 'strangers' in English, 'compatriots' in Welsh (Cymru). It has not been a sovereign nation since 1282.

Wales national football team

Psychologically, it is relatively insular. For that reason, its language has thrived despite the adjacency of the world's most global tongue, English. Its rich coal reserves meant there was relative prosperity in the 19th century, which meant its people stayed put, unlike the Scots and Irish, whose emigrant cultures were carried to the four winds.

To this day even in continental Europe if you are Welsh, or like me, used to live there, you often have to explain what 'Gales' or 'Le Pays De Galles' is and moreover that it is not a part of England.

Football is an international language but if your country is not any good at it, it will not carry your fame. Given Wales never seemed to qualify for any finals, nobody knew who they were. I even remember an American soccer magazine circa 1990 referring to 'Ian Rush of Whales.'

'It's more rugby there isn't it?' a Frenchman once said to me when I told him I lived in Cardiff.

Well yes and no. There is nothing like an international Welsh rugby day when the whole nation comes to a stop and seems to descend on the capital. Football still does not do that in Wales.

For a while, in the 1990s Cardiff Arms Park was selling 50,000+ tickets for Wales football matches but the national team, despite some memorable victories over Belgium, Brazil, and Germany, kept missing out on finals.

In 1993 a home win over Romania would have taken Wales to the US World Cup but they lost 2-1, agonisingly missing a penalty to boot.

"You can never rely on Wales," a Welsh friend of mine rued as the national team saw another hopeful opening to a campaign fizzle out. Dourness and fatalism, traits assigned to the Welsh by its great poet Dylan Thomas and others, felt perfectly at home with its football.

Unlike England or Scotland, there was no Welsh national stadium for football, only for rugby.

Rugby continued to be shorthand for Welsh sport, with football looking on in eternal jealousy. It felt unfair. Northern Ireland had reached Espana '82 and Mexico '86 while Eire enjoyed halcyon days at Euro '88, Italia '90 and USA '94, and Scotland has had memorable World Cups, but Wales was always left on the quayside.

Welsh football's historic failure is perhaps not surprising given the oval ball's iconic status in a country of only three million people, but their football association dates back as far as 1876, the third-oldest in the world.

It had been an interminable wait for the Dragons since they had finished in the quarter-finals of the World Cup in Sweden. There, without their Serie A star John Charles, they were only knocked out by a Pele goal for Brazil. Reaching the last eight in the world was a great achievement but relatively few knew about it in an age before the internet or even global television.

Despite intermittent talents popping up like Charles, Ivor Allchurch, John Toshack, Ian Rush and Ryan Giggs, the red shirts tripped up time and again when it came to qualification, each near miss ensuring a tough draw the next time.

Euro 2016's expansion to 24 teams allowed the minnows a greater chance than ever, but the omens for the Dragons were not good: Wales were placed in pot four of six in the draw in 2014, a hard group a given. 

The team was still in the doldrums after their annus horriblis of 2011. That year Wales missed out on Euro 2012 by finishing fourth out of fifth in their group and out of the blue, popular manager Gary Speed committed suicide, stunning the football world.

Chris Coleman, the former Fulham boss with the baritone voice, began the difficult job of rebuilding a shattered national team but progress was slow: Wales finished fifth out of six in their qualifying group for Brazil 2014, missing by a mile again. Plus รงa change.

But then the litany of losing changed when they qualified for Euro 2016, their first finals in 58 years.

In France, the new boys in town not only acquitted themselves admirably but amazed Europe. From a FIFA World Ranking of 112th in 2010, Wales ended summer 2016 in the last four of the European Championship, in any man's language a huge transformation.

For the Welsh it understandably felt like a once in a lifetime event, so happily a filmmaker Jonny Owen commemorated it with a documentary, 'Don't Take Me Home'

The film scores by taking the first few minutes dealing with the Speed tragedy and Coleman's frankness about how wary he was of making changes, finding the players were still loyal to a dead man.

But once he found the courage to implement his ideas, the results improved, helped not a little by the presence of one of the world's best players in Gareth Bale, living the dream at Real Madrid. 

In close support was talented midfielder Aaron Ramsey, now following in the footsteps of Charles and Rush at Juventus.

The relief at finally qualifying for a finals was felt across Wales.

"Everybody I know who is into football is going, everybody," a fan in the film admits.

30,000-odd crossed the sea to France and made their presence well known. There could have been more footage of fans on the ground for my liking, a window into that intimate experience, but the overall picture was clear enough: The Welsh were having the time of their lives. A sea of red jerseys washed in everywhere they played.

Wales football team

But for them it was doubly wonderful because of what happened on-field. An opening win over Slovakia began to wake Europe up; the first-timers were not just making up the numbers. 

Meeting the old enemy England was icing on the cake and Wales enjoyed 14 minutes of heaven before Jamie Vardy tied Bale's opener and Daniel Sturridge bagged a last-gasp winner.

A commanding 3-0 swatting of Russia saw the novelty qualifiers finish group winners and an attritional 1-0 win over Northern Ireland in the second round meant the Red Dragons would play the Red Devils in the last eight.

Belgium were hot favourites, boasting the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, and Romelu Lukaku. After a screamer from Radja Nainggolan gave them the lead they had the Brits under the cosh. But then Wales fought back and scored three goals, sending their fans into ecstasy and leaving everyone else in disbelief.

"Quelle Folie!" screamed L'Equipe, France's daily sports paper - what madness!

Cristiano Ronaldo was insuperable in the semi-final, however, masterminding a 2-0 win for Portugal after a scoreless first half. In the film, Coleman compares his imperious physicality to memories passed down of the great John Charles.

Still, it had been a remarkable journey. A heroes' welcome at Cardiff airport and a packed city centre for an open-top bus parade was a novel experience, perhaps a one-off, for Welsh footballers, Bale apart. 

For the thousands who had crossed the Channel to France, there was a lifetime of memories to cherish. For the many more who watched from home, the month was almost as exciting. 

As with Cameroon in 1990, football had shown its unique ability to propel a hitherto unrecognised nation onto a big stage.

Wales missed out on Russia 2018, only losing one match out of ten but drawing five. They have made it to Euro 2020 however, where they will play Italy, Turkey and Switzerland next summer.

"You go somewhere in the world and people don't know where Wales is," says a Welsh fan at the end of the film. 

"We're known now."

A footballing backwater no more.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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