Anushree Nande explores the extraordinary rise of the Wales National Football team from 117th 4 years ago, to their phenomenal campaign at the Euro 2016.
“Sports are human activities made difficult for the joy of it.”
– John Ciardi
Sporting narratives are inevitable whatever the nature of the event. Good, bad, gut-wrenching, inspiring; sport as a whole thrives on the intricate relationship between emotions, collective human psychology and the communal sense of history and memory. For viewers it provides a sense of belonging to a larger world, showcases a pinnacle of human achievement and endurance, and allows us to experience an intensity, unpredictability and hope that is often absent in our everyday lives.
Euros 2016 was no different with its share of stirring stories, underdogs, champions and heady moments along the emotional spectrum. One such unforgettable narrative was provided by Wales. Participating in only their second major international tournament, they snuck into the hearts and imaginations of fans from across the world with a remarkable run that ended with a 2-0 loss to Portugal in the semi-finals. They are not the first underdogs to defy expectation, nor will they be the last. But to understand what makes this journey remarkable, momentous even, requires going back in time.
Wales competed in its first competitive match on March 25, 1876. Their opponents were Scotland and the match took place in Glasgow. It would take just under a year before the first international football match took place on Welsh soil on March 5, 1877, again versus Scotland. For the third oldest football association and international football team in the world, it would take many years before they experienced their first “golden age”. It was in the 1950s that stars such as Jack Kelsey, Alf Sherwood, Cliff Jones, John Charles and the like, managed by Jimmy Murphy, qualified for the 1958 World Cup for the first (and until now only) time in their history.
But their route to that World Cup in Sweden wasn’t easy. After they finished second to Czechoslovakia in their group, Wales had seemingly missed out on qualification. It was Middle Eastern politics that came to their rescue, and eventually 2 legs versus Israel were all that blocked their way. They won 2-0 on both occasions, but in retrospect all the events that brought them to the second leg in Cardiff were also important for another, more poignant reason. Jimmy Murphy was staff at Manchester United Football Club for a large part of his post-player career (he made over 200 appearances for West Bromwich Albion and 15 appearances for Wales)—assistant manager, chief coach, reserve team manager, full-time scout.
On the same night as the Wales-Israel fixture in Cardiff, Manchester United were playing Red Star Belgrade in Yugoslavia; a trip he would have normally been a part of if not for national managerial duties. The next day, February 6, 1958, is one that is forever etched in football memory. It was Murphy who temporarily took over as manager while Matt Busby recovered and inspired a substitute United team to the 1958 FA Cup final (that they lost 2-0 to Bolton is irrelevant).
Twists of fate and strokes of luck like these are embedded in many of the stories we hold dear; if not just for a sense of historical significance and context. They add enriching layers to an existing narrative, connecting threads we can trace back to their roots, and allow for introspection and inspiration. That it took nearly 60 years for another Wales team to secure qualification for an international tournament speaks volumes about the resultant tumultuous journey. It doesn’t however give a scope of the heartbreak, the near-misses, the passion and resilience, the failures—the disastrous Euro 96 qualification campaign, a penalty miss costing them a place in the 94 World Cup, the slim loss to Russia in the 2004 Euros play-offs among others.
But the start of the current narrative is closer. In August 2011, Wales had their lowest ever FIFA world ranking at 117. Former player, Gary Speed, was their manager (having been appointed in the December of 2010) and had given the captain’s armband to 20 year old Aaron Ramsey, making him the youngest-ever captain of his country. It was not an ideal start, but by October 2011, a string of positive results saw Wales jump to 45 in the world rankings, leading to an unofficial award for biggest mover of the year in the rankings. A 4-1 win in a friendly match against Norway on November 12, 2011 was their third successive win. The manager’s efforts and tactics were finally starting to show results, his faith in a group of relative youngsters paying off, and the future of the team looked promising.
Two weeks later on November 27, 2011, Gary Speed was found dead at his home of an apparent suicide. At the age of 42, he left behind a wife and two young kids, and a devastated team and football community. Chris Coleman, another former Welsh international, was appointed to replace him on January 19, 2012. Looking back, Speed’s far-too-short time at the helm was the start of the “Together Stronger” motto that has characterised the Welsh campaign since then. The group of youngsters he picked and groomed are now at the heart of the current team; leaders that the newer players look up to. Coleman, to his credit, has built upon the foundation Speed was only beginning to lay, and the culmination of that was in 2015 with the confirmation of Wales’ qualification for the 2016 Euros.
Drawn with England, Slovakia and Russia in the tournament, Wales managed 1 defeat (a very narrow one) and 2 victories respectively to top the group and book their place in a Round of 16 match with Northern Ireland. A 1-0 victory saw them advance to a quarterfinal clash against the Belgians who were tipped to be one of the dark horses of the tournament. Wales went a goal behind before showing great resolve and scoring 3 of their own to reach their first ever semi-final (also the first British nation to advance to the semi-finals of a major international tournament since hosts England at Euros 96).
Back in 1958, Jimmy Murphy’s lads had managed to reach the quarterfinals versus Brazil. There are shades of déjà-vu between the only two occasions Wales have made it to the knockout rounds of an international tournament. In Sweden, an injury to John Charles hampered Wales’ chances of getting a result, and it was an especially special player in the form of a 17 year old Pele who scored his first international goal, became the youngest player to score a goal in the World Cup and eventually helped Brazil to win the tournament.
In Lyon, Wales sorely missed Aaron Ramsey. The Arsenal midfielder who received his second yellow of the tournament versus Belgium (a rather unfair one at that) was suspended, and Wales were without one of their most consistent performers. As quality as Gareth Bale is, the Welsh system works well because he and Aaron Ramsey play in tandem, keeping the balance. While Bale attracts more defenders because of how dangerous he is, Ramsey skilfully exploits the gaps, looks for the right pass, and ensures good team movement. Without him, Bale was left hopelessly isolated against Portugal, and Wales’ lack of depth eventually showed them up in the second half.
On the other hand, let’s not forget Cristiano Ronaldo. Bale’s Real Madrid compatriot shares many of the Welshman’s qualities—blistering pace, raw physicality and power, athleticism—and is one of the most dangerous prospects in world football today. It is also true that more often than not, he makes for a martyr-like figure in his national team’s colours (a team that, for the record, has reached a whopping 7 World Cup and Euros semi-finals since 2000, and eventually went on to win the 2016 final versus hosts France with a lone goal in extra time)—petulant and tetchy, like he has the cross of the entire team’s inadequacies on his broad, chiselled back. This was no truer than in France, but to give him credit, he was the man of the match in the Lyon semi-final with a goal and a masterful performance that finally delivered on the promise.
But being beaten by the better team on the night is nothing to be ashamed of; cannot take anything away from what this means for the Wales national football team or their fans. The international arena is far more impartial than top-level league football where there is more often than not an inequality of riches and superstars (Leicester and Ranieri, I bow down to you). Chris Coleman has benefited from having the likes of Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey at his disposal, but there is no denying that he’s gathered and created a cohesive unit around them with a clear strategy based on their strengths and weaknesses. Whether it’s Hal Robson-Kanu who doesn’t even have a club right now to Ben Davies who is on the Tottenham bench to senior, dependable players like captain Ashley Williams, Chris Gunter, Joe Ledley and James Chester. There is also a scientific approach with a strong backroom staff of dedicated data analysts, sports scientists and physiotherapists.
But this cohesiveness didn’t happen overnight. It was systematically fostered and nurtured, whether on or off the pitch, starting with Gary Speed making it mandatory for the players to sing the national anthem (a lack of which used to annoy fans). Chris Coleman continued this tradition and his second-in-charge, Osian Roberts, insists on the same from the U-16 players under him; the fluent Welsh speaker is responsible for tutoring many of the English-born players in it. This has clearly added to the camaraderie evident within the squad, the relaxed manner of the players throughout the tournament, and the infectious exuberance with which they played every match (Gareth Bale’s free-kick goal versus Slovakia, Ramsey’s man-of-the-match performance against Belgium, Robson-Kanu’s Cruyff-like turn for his goal versus Russia). It was no surprise then to see that Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Ashley Williams made it to the Euro 2016 team of the tournament.
However it’s also true that not many expected Wales to perform well in this competition, much rather reach the semi-finals, exactly why their campaign was significant despite the eventual loss. Yet it is this very defying of expectations that now exposes them to the opposite end of the spectrum. Go to any football forum or articles on the team and you will find many comments about how Wales were lucky, how they had easy opposition and failed when they faced their first “difficult” opponent, how they were not that much better than England who they lost to in the group stages, and how their achievements are not worth the praise they are receiving. On the other hand, if Wales had overcome more traditionally “tougher” opposition in their road to the semi-finals, I’m sure that there would have been many who put their support behind them as the “underdogs”. It goes to show that expectations and reality are tricky minefields to navigate and will largely depend on individual perception and context (as an aside, does a “bad” or “lucky” team ever just reach the semi-finals of such a major tournament? Or go on win it? Answers on the back of a postcard or in the comment section).
There is no escaping the fact that Wales will now have to play with the weight of added expectations. Historically the country’s team has always performed well with the odds stacked against them; not so much when favourites. This will certainly be a challenge, and how well the team performs in the future will largely depend on how they can adapt to changes and handle the pressure. Fortunately, Chris Coleman, who just announced that he would step down as manager after the 2018 World Cup campaign, is already thinking along those lines.
“The biggest challenge for us is that we will be a scalp now because of what we’ve just done. Teams will play differently against us and rather than us being the underdogs, which we’re very good at, we’ll be expected to win. We’ve not been used to breaking teams down. We’ve been used to hitting teams on the counter-attack because they’ve attacked us because they expect to get something from us. We may have to look at how we approach it slightly differently in terms of what the opposition are going to do to us.”
But for now the monumental achievement of having created a small piece of history against all odds should be enough for them and the huge legion of fans that have been superb ambassadors at a tournament whose early stages were marred by ugly, fan-incited violence. They have allowed even neutrals to believe and hope in the power of dreams. Gorau chwarae, cyd chwarae (team play is the best play) is the motto on the crest of the national team, and this writer hopes that the Euro 2016 campaign will inspire an entire generation of young Welsh footballers to strive for the same excellence and belief.