Football fever is hitting Wales right now. And not just Wales, but England and Northern Ireland, too. It's the first time in a generation that three teams from the UK have contested a major international football tournament, and the first time ever that three of the four Home Nations will be competing at the same European Championship. Even the Republic of Ireland are joining the party, meaning the only ones missing out are Scotland who, let's face it, aren't very good at football these days so it's no great loss.
Nothing divides and unifies quite like the Beautiful Game. It must be the only sport in the world that makes enemies out of friends and turns brother against brother, yet makes allies out of people from all four corners of the globe and from all walks of life. Nothing can compare with the emotion and intensity it can invoke, or the drama and excitement it can create.
Wherever you are in the world, if you have any interest in football or sport in general, you can't fail to have been moved by the recent achievements of Leicester City. By winning the English Premier League in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, they showed everyone, in every sporting arena and even beyond, what can be achieved with hard work and sheer determination. It was undoubtedly one of the biggest sporting upsets the world has ever seen. Just to provide a bit of context, when the last PL season began, the bookies had them 5000-1 outsiders to win the league. But win it they did, seeing off the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea in the process.
The Welsh football team will make history when they play at Euro 2016 in France. This will be the first time they have qualified for a major tournament in 40 years, and only the second time in their history. Quite a statistic when you consider the Welsh football team has been in existence since 1876, making it the third oldest national team in the world, behind England and Scotland, and older than Italy, Brazil, Argentina and Germany. Even the star-studded Wales teams of old featuring the likes of Ian Rush, Ryan Giggs, Neville Southall, John Toshack, Dean Saunders, Craig Bellamy, Gary Speed and Mark Hughes all failed at the last hurdle. Often, long before the last hurdle. The occasion is being marked by the Manic Street Preachers, who have recorded the official Wales Euro 2016 anthem (1).
One of my most painful memories as a football supporter was going to watch the national side play Romania at the old Arms park on November 17th 1993. We needed one more win to qualify for USA 1994, the Romanians needed a draw (2). There was a lot at stake for both sides. After an hour the score was 1-1, and Wales were awarded a penalty. The place erupted, and up stepped the old dependable Swindon defender Paul Bodin. By now even the rest of the UK was watching, the BBC having abandoned their live coverage of England's game in San Marino as by that time, Wales were the only Home Nation still in with a chance of qualifying. Viewing figures leaped from 2.2 million to almost 13 million, though 34,000 irate England supporters reportedly rang up to complain within the space of five minutes. If they'd continued watching, they would have witnessed a moment that remains firmly engrained in the Welsh psyche even now, as Bodin smashed the penalty kick against the bar. It's hard to explain how that felt at the time. It was like a physical kick in the nuts. We knew we'd blown our chance. It was over. Our misery was complete when Romania broke away and scored a late winner, and the Cosmic Joker put the boot in when he saw to it that Bodin scored a penalty for his club in his very next match.
Historically, trouble, strife and tragedy has followed Welsh football (3). Even the constant frustration and disappointment on the pitch pales in comparison to the death of Scotland manager Jock Stein, who collapsed and died during an international match at Cardiff's Ninian Park on September 10th 1985, and the suicide of then-national team manager Gary Speed on November 27th 2011 (4). The year or two after Speed's death was probably the lowest I have ever seen Welsh football sink. The whole nation was in mourning, and understandably the team lost its spark. Speed was immensely popular, and under his leadership the team was going places. Chris Coleman, a close friend and ex-teammate of his who inherited the role of Wales manager, met with fierce criticism in the early days and had a difficult enoug task just concentrating on the football, never mind having to turn things around. Nobody envied him. But to his credit, after a shaky start he grew into the role and last year took us to an all-time high of eighth in the world. Wales. The eighth best football team in the world. In fact, for a brief time, Wales were ranked above England in both football and rugby simultaneously for the first time in history (5).
Speaking of which, to make things even more interesting in France this summer, Wales have been drawn in a group with Slovakia, Russia, and yes, you guessed it, arch rivals England for what promises to be the most important Battle of Britain since the war. Or at least since the Rugby World Cup. This is a script you simply couldn't write. Whatever the occasion, whether it be tiddlywinks or the oldest sport in the world, every proud Welshman (or woman) would agree that it's always good to resume hostilities with the Old Enemy. The intense rivalry we share transcends sport, and I don't think I need to explain that to anyone reading this.
Let's be honest, the odds are against us. And so is history. Out of 101 matches played, Wales' record against England is W14 D21 L66, the last win coming in the now-defunct British Championships in 1984. England are currently ranked tenth in the World FIFA rankings, whilst despite their continued good form, Wales have slipped to 24th (it's a mystery how FIFA work out the ranking system). But Wales do have Gareth Bale, who became the most expensive footballer on the planet when he moved from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid for a reported £85.3 million in 2013. In the three short years since he has become the highest ever British goalscorer in La Liga, surpassing Gary Lineker's long-standing record of 42, and been a Champions League winner in two of the last three seasons (6). Not bad for the son of a school caretaker from Cardiff who started his career as a defender and best of all, he absolutely loves playing for his country (7).
Bale will play a wide forward role in France, where his rampaging runs can do the most damage, and will no-doubt be given free license to do what he wants. The current philosophy is somewhere along the lines of, 'Keep men behind the ball, defend in numbers, pressure the opponents and when the chance comes, give the ball to Bale.' He is undoubtedly the talisman, but Wales are much more than a one-man team. Perhaps their greatest strengths are team spirit, a will to win, and a desire to right the wrongs of the past, as typified by their slogan '#Together stronger,' which makes them something much more than the sum of their parts.
In midfield we are blessed to have the supremely gifted Aaron Ramsey. Since leaving Cardiff City for Arsenal in 2008 for a cool £5 million, the Caerphilly-born star has grown into a key player for both club and country and, if press reports are to be believed, could soon be lining up in La Liga for Barcelona, against teammate Gareth Bale in the next El Classico, no less. But let's not speculate, let's focus on the facts. One thing virtually guaranteed is that alongside Ramsey in the Welsh midfield will be 27-year old Andy King who is a central figure at, wait for it, none other than newly-crowned PL champions Leicester City. The archetypal one-club man, King has been at the Foxes since turning professional in 2007, becoming the only player in history to win League One, the Championship, and the Premier League (England's top three divisions) with a single club. His experience of battling against the odds last season, and coming out on top, will stand him in good stead.
At the back, we have Swansea City duo Neil Taylor and Ashley Williams, who has been much sought after by bigger clubs in recent years but always chose to stay in South Wales, and ex-Cardiff City stalwart John Collins (aka the Ginger Monster) who has enjoyed a stunning season for West Ham. The spine of the team is completed by goalkeeper Wayne Hennessy, fresh from an FA Cup Final appearance with Crystal Palace and eager to add to his 56 caps. Other names on the team-sheet who may not grab as many headlines, but nevertheless perform important roles are rampaging Tottenham full-back Ben Davies, Liverpool midfielder Joe Allen, Crystal Palace's Joe Ledley, and forward Hal Robson-Kanu, who has become a firm fan favourite. The ex-Reading man doesn't score many goals (just 2 from 30 appearances for his country) but his game is based on hard-running, intelligence and tenacity. He is often the focal-point of attacks, and is more than happy to run the angles and channels in order to open up space for his teammates. He is a free agent this summer, and another whisper from the terraces suggests he may be a Bluebird soon. We can only hope.
That's the good news. The bad news is, put simply, is Wales don't score enough goals. Despite finishing second in their group with six wins, three draws and a solitary defeat, during the qualifying campaign they only managed to put the ball in the net 11 times in 10 games, with three of those coming in one fixture against Israel. Apart from whipping boys Andorra, that's the lowest return in the entire group, and in stark contrast to group winners Belgium who notched an impressive 24. Our strength was a defence that kept seven clean sheets on the way to only conceded a measly four goals, the fewest in the group. Any success in France this summer will again be based on a strong, well-drilled defence.
Wales play their first game of the tournament against Slovakia in Bordeaux on June 11th. With the Slovaks ranked 32nd in the world by FIFA and not many household names in their ranks, on paper this would appear the easiest game of the group. Don't believe a word of it. Slovakia beat Spain in qualifying, and thrashed world champions Germany 3-1 in their own back yard last month in a warm-up match. They are a solid, compact team, notoriously difficult to break down. As are Wales. This particular game could well be a low-scoring stalemate, probably more notable for resilience than flair. Wales might sneak a narrow victory, but a solitary point wouldn't be a disaster. It would provide a decent platform, but would probably mean us having to win one of our two remaining games in order to progress to the next round.
The English are next up. This is the one we would obviously love to win. The Three Lions are not as strong as they have been in recent years. They currently have a slightly shaky defence, and have developed a hilarious habit of scoring own goals. Another draw would serve us well, and even a defeat wouldn't be the end of the world, depending on other results of course. The last group game is against Russia, who are ranked three places below Wales in 27th. With both teams likely to be chasing points, this could be the pick of the group games. Conceivably Wales could qualify for the next stage of the tournament with three draws, that could even be an omen (8) but we would be virtually guaranteed entry with the four points a draw and a win would bring. That would put the Dragons into contention for making the biggest impression on a major tournament since the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, when Pele's first ever international goal knocked out a Wales team featuring Ivor Allchurch, Mel Charles and Derek Sullivan at the quarter-final stage on their way to winning the tournament. By the way, Wales reached that point by virtue of three draws in the group stages. Just saying.
The need to navigate a course around (or through) England and Russia early-on, and big-hitters like Spain, Italy, Portugal, Belgium, hosts France and world champions Germany potentially waiting in the latter rounds, makes a Welsh success in France its certainly a tall order. But we are a team that thrives as the underdog, and frankly, we wouldn't have it any other way. The bookies have us at around 80-1 to win the tournament. But at the start of the season the same bookies had Leicester 5000-1 to win the Premier league, so what the heck do they know?
New Tredegar-born C.M. Saunders began writing in 1997, his early fiction appearing in several small-press titles. Following the publication of his first book, Into the Dragon's Lair – A Supernatural History of Wales (2003), he worked extensively in the freelance market, contributing to over fifty international publications including Fortean Times, Loaded, Record Collector, Nuts. In addition, he has written several novellas and had over thirty short stories published in various magazines, ezines and anthologies. He taught English and creative writing in China for five years, before settling in London where he works as a writer and editor in the sport, fitness and men's lifestyle sectors. He is represented by Media Bitch literary agency.