June 5th 1991. A nine-year-old boy is taken by his dad to his first ever football game in the grandiose setting of the Cardiff Arms Park. The Game is Wales V Germany, a qualifier game for Euro 92. The boy has never seen such a crowd of people before and absorbs the atmosphere, in awe of the occasion. Sixty six minutes pass in a cagey game and then… suddenly a ball is hit passed the German defense, Liverpool’s prolific goalscorer Ian Rush runs on and hits it beyond the German keeper. Wales 1- 0 Germany. At this moment the crowd around the little boy absolutely explodes with excitement; thousands of men leap to their feet to cheer the goal, the little boy, who was contently chomping on a hot dog before the advance in play, is almost knocked off his chair by the excited crowd around him. The hot dog falls to the ground. The boy no longer cares about the hot dog and joins the grown men around him dancing and singing and going absolutely crazy with excitement; this crowd are making the loudest noise the little boy has ever heard. Remarkably, Wales hold out against a barrage of German attacks to win the game 1-0. At the final whistle, the crowd erupts in a scene of the kind of all out jubilation you can only ever see when an underdog triumphs against a champion.
That boy was of course me and this is one of my earliest memories in life. Wales had beaten a team that had been declared the best in the world at the World cup that was held in Italy just one year before. It was one of the greatest results in Welsh football history and I was there for my first ever taste of international sport. Wales had a remarkable qualifying campaign that year, going on to beat Belgium and finishing the group in second place, just one point behind Germany. Unfortunately, this wasn’t good enough to qualify in those days though as there were only eight teams in the competition, so only the number one placed team progressed to Sweden in Euro 1992. In order for Wales to qualify back then, we would have had to finish ahead of a German team that had just been strengthened due to the reunified of East and West Germany. Plus West Germany, who provided the bulk of the team, were the current world cup holders. That German team got to the final and were beaten by Denmark, a team who only qualified due to a civil war excluding their group winners Yugoslavia. Denmark wrote their own fairytale football story back then; it’s a chapter that Wales are on track to emulate in Euro 2016.
Two years later, the same team which featured Welsh legends like goalkeeper Neville Southall and goalscorer Dean Saunders had a great world cup qualifying campaign. It came down to our final game against Romania. If we had won it, we would have made it to the U.S.A world cup, the first time we would have competed in an international football competition since 1958. Noticeably, this was a year that England had failed to qualify for the tournament. This is a night that any Welsh football fan over the age of 25 can recall with painful memories; hearts were broken all around the country as a great campaign ended in a loss that was hard to endure. The game was poised at 1-1 and then Wales were awarded a penalty. A nervous looking Paul Bodin stepped up. If he scored, he would have surely sent Wales to World Cup 94. The crunch as the ball hit the bar was a poleaxing blow to both the fans and the team. Minutes later, Romania went on to run up the other end and score, sending themselves through. Romania went on to become one of the stand-out teams of U.S. 94 and a few years later, Romanian players could be seen in many premier league teams. As for Welsh fans, young and old, we were taught a painful lesson about just how tragic a sporting loss could feel. That night in ’93 taught me a harsh lesson in loss. We were left to wonder about what ifs for years after that.
The Welsh manager Terry Yorath, who had brought the national team to the brink of qualification for two major tournaments, was harshly sacked, much to the anger of the Welsh crowd who had enjoyed the valiant spirit of the team in his tenure. The next decade or so saw Wales go through a footballing dark age as managers like John Toshak, Mike Smith and Bobby Gould, all took charge and failed to steer the national side back in the right direction. Our golden generation of players, who so deserved to go to a tournament, had to retire without their international dreams ever being fulfilled.
Embarrassing defeats against Moldova and Georgia, extinguished any hope that we had of ever getting to a major international football tournament.
Wales as an emerging football force had well and truly been dismantled. With confidence low, we lost badly to the Netherlands and Italy and dropped further and further down the Fifa rankings.
After about a decade in the football wilderness, the reign of Mark Hughes started to show promise. We had some top quality players like Ryan Giggs and Craig Bellamy and we started a rebuilding process. This group of players had an excellent qualifying campaign for Euro 2004. We had led all the way and in anticipation of getting to Portugal in 2004, some of my friends had already booked their tickets to go, it seemed that certain. Alas, we struggled in the second half of the campaign and we had to settle for 2nd place. This was still enough to land us a two leg qualifier with Russia. Hopes were kept alive with a solid 0-0 in Moscow, but Hughes’ picked a defensive minded team and we lost the return leg in Cardiff 1-0. This was another sucker-punch ending to a Welsh campaign, which left me and the whole city of Cardiff in a depressive slump and yet another campaign that saw us so near but so far away. After that our Welsh hero Ryan Giggs decided to hang up his international boots.
Mark Hughes then left the national team for a post at Blackburn. A popular figure in the Welsh football pantheon then took charge, Gary Speed. Speed gave players like Aaron Ramsey their first taste of international football. He started a rebuilding process that saw us pick up some wins against Switzerland, Norway and Bulgaria, and Wales started to get some respect back. We climbed to 45th in the Fifa world rankings and were named Fifa’s’ biggest climber. Hopes were high that Speed could take Wales to the next level and then suddenly, we were all left in shock when news broke that he had committed suicide. His close friend Chris Coleman took over, in time for the World Cup 2014 qualifiers but Wales, seemingly haunted by the death of their promising manager, had some disastrous results, the worst being a terrible 6-1 defeat by Serbia. A few wins over Scotland gave us hope of qualifying; hope that was finally extinguished by a 2-1 home defeat to Croatia. And Coleman hung on to the job by a thread.
By now, Welsh fans had been hardened by decades of near misses, so this latest chapter in failure to qualify didn’t upset us as much as some of the others.
Nations in the group stages of the current Euro 2016 campaign were boosted by FIFA’s decision to expand the amount of teams competing from 16 to 24. Wales were also boasted by a vote of confidence in the team from FIFA which – somewhat bizarrely – saw us moved up to 10th in the FIFA world rankings. We went on to have a brilliant campaign that saw us beat a great Belgium side. We lost our last game against Bosnia but we had all ready won four games and drawn two, so we progressed as Cyprus beat Israel to help us go through.
We had done it! Wales had finally made it to a major competition after decades of heart-breaking near misses.
After finally breaking onto the big stage, I think we were just hoping that Wales could do the nation proud and get out of the group. History had taught us to air on the side of caution when it comes to the Welsh team. But with superstars like Gareth Bale and excellent Arsenal midfielder in Aaron Ramsey, as well as a squad featuring players like Ashley Williams, Chris Gunther and Ben Davies, to name just a few, all players who play week in week out for Premier League teams, we were quietly confident that we could at least give some top teams a good game.
The performance of the Welsh team at Euro 2016 is beyond our wildest boyhood dreams. As children, we just dreamed of one day getting to these competitions. We had faint feelings that if we did get there, we could impress. It’s such a wonderful feeling to see that this has been the case.
I think the way Wales took on the Slovakian’s in our first match of Euro 2016, surprised us all though. They played like a team who had experience in the biggest arena in international football. We took on the opposition. Bale showed his composure with a great free-kick that ignited a sense of belief. Ramsey and Allen ran the midfield and Robson-Kanu popped up for a massive goal. We won the game 2-1 and anyone of Welsh origin felt immense pride. In the England game we were pushed back and pinned in our own half for a lot of the game. Our explosive counter-attack had been nullified. Bale made us delirious with hope that we could beat our old football neighbour England. That hope was snuffed out by a late goal from Daniel Sturridge in an eventual 2-1 loss.
The way we responded in the Russia game absolutely surprised us all. The force of Wales’ Ramsey and Bale-led explosive counter-attack, was finally revealed. We took the game to the Russians, with wave upon wave of positive football. We lit up the tournament with our exciting attacking football earning a deserved 3-0 win. Wales were finally on the international map and the rest of the nations applauded with respect. England had beaten us, but we topped the group ahead of them, which is much better really.
Northern Ireland in the round of 16 was always going to be a difficult opponent from a Welsh perspective. Wales prefer to be the underdog and that game saw us the favourites. Northern Ireland were very difficult to break down, and their decision to sit back, killed any chance of our counter-attack. It was great that pressure resulted in a 1-0 win and we were progressed to the biggest game in our nations history: a quarter final against Belgium.
This was a Belgium side that made the semi-finals of the World Cup in 2014. It was Belgium’s golden generation. In the previous game they had finally looked like they were going to live up to their potential. But Wales enjoy playing against Belgium. We have a history of lifting out game against this nation and this again proved to be the case. After going 1-0 down, we weathered the Belgium attacks, showed no fear, responded positively and went on to equalize through a determined Ashley Williams header. And then Robson-Kanu left three members of the Belgium defense doing passable impressions of statues, with a Cruyff tribute of a turn that gave him a point blank shot on goal that he slotted away with ease. A Vokes header late on wrapped up an amazing win in the biggest game in Welsh football history. Most of us who remember the last few decades of Welsh football history have not stopped smiling ever since.
The line ‘biggest game in Welsh football history’ became redundant a few rounds back now though. It goes without saying. Wales have broken record after record at Euro 2016. We are the smallest nation to ever qualify for a semi-final in a major tournament. The pressure is off Wales as unlike with England, there has been no expectation to succeed. Debilitating pressure has not hampered the psychology of the Welsh team. We have played in a way that has won us friends around the world. We have a manager with a plan and a team determined to play for him. They have extra determination in wishing to honour their departed mentor, the late Gary Speed.
By contrast our opponents Portugal, finished third in the group; a position that would have rendered them out in any other competition. They have somehow progressed to the semi-final despite not winning a single match in 90 minutes in the whole competition. But in a way, they have nothing to lose either and will be relishing a semi-final game against a small nation like Wales, instead of the usual football powerhouse nation that get to this stage of the competition. They also have a big game player in Ronaldo, so you can never discount Portugal. Plus this is their seventh semi-final, so they are experienced at this stage of the tournament.
This might be the start of a football revolution in Wales, or it might be our one tournament in the limelight. We may never be here in this stage of a competition again. We have enjoyed every minute of it and we as Welsh fans will remember the best chapter in our football history for the rest of our lives. Who knows what emotions we will be feeling tomorrow. But as of right now, Wales are just one game away from a European Championship final. Prior to this tournament, no Welsh person I have ever met thought that was possible. Will our football fairy-tale continue? We are feeling confident, but you just never know with Wales. We have had too many false dawns. We do have a feeling that in Euro 2016 we have a belief and determination unmatched by any other Welsh side. This may be a once in a lifetime opportunity to get to a final. Who knows if we can get over this big hurdle. But for now lets get motivated with a chant you will hear all across Wales today. C’Mon Wales! C’mon Wales!!
My score prediction. Wales 1 – 1 Portugal (Wales to win 2-1 after extra time).