As the full-time whistle blew during our dirty 1-0 win over Northern Ireland at Euro 2016, the older man behind me was crying over the prospect of watching Wales in the quarter-finals of a major championship. I thoroughly blew my cheeks and raised an eyebrow, so people do after reading a BuzzFeed article about how many egg whites Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson eats in a day.
Feeling we had ‘Run out of gas’ emotionally, Gareth McAuley’s self-esteem was high, and I wondered if he was in his 60s. Wales reaching the quarterfinals of our only World Cup appearance in 1958. “No,” he replied. “I was three years old.”
It’s hard to cling to sports history when even the old people you know are too young to remember it. But Sunday gave this Welsh team a chance to create their own history. As I walked to the bar to meet my friends before the start, door after door of the terraced houses in Canton, Cardiff, opened one after another, with identically dressed Welsh fans in red shirts and bucket hats leaving to do the same as me. . It felt like the unreal opening scene of a horror TV movie about football, directed by someone who was never to a match, but is perfectly happy to be associated with a movie where the star striker wins the winner in a cup final because he was told to stand in a different position at a ghost kick .
My walk was a more timid mix than a confident stroke, but as you walk into games of immense significance, it tends to be the defeats you remember as opposed to the victories. My mind drifted to Romania in 1993, and Russia in 2003, the definite qualifying defeats of my time as a supporter. One thing I remember so clearly about those games is how drunk everyone was before the launch. But not a happy drunkard. A quiet, tense drunk. Think less “hammered at a loved one’s wedding”, more “I’d rather have another tip before I amputate my leg because there’s no anesthetic on this Elizabethan pirate ship”.
Some things never change. At the bar I saw people buying circles that would seem excessive for someone on death row, but it wasn’t the same concern I noticed in 1993 or 2003, especially among younger fans. Unburdened by years of disappointment, the younger supporters at the Lansdowne pub had a wonderful time. It was the people my age and older who were looking anxiously at their pinnacles.
Players feel a different kind of nerves because they can directly affect things. People in their 40s like me who wanted Wales to qualify for the World Cup as Desert Orchid ran to win Sports Personality of the Year are forced to rely on more fancy ways to influence proceedings. We talked about how miserable our pre-match rituals are: lucky coaches, lucky bars, cutting toes with lucky scissors. We made them anyway.
People sat in the Canton Stand earlier than usual because no one wanted to miss out Dafydd Iwan sings Yma o Hyd. For non-initiatives, Iwan is a 78-year-old folk singer and Yma o Hyd was written about the survival of the Welsh language and nation in the wake of Welsh transmission being rejected in 1979 and Thatcher winning the 1983 general election. That it would be so intensely sung of non-Welsh speakers and Welsh speakers alike would have been unimaginable a few years ago, and somehow felt both normal and massively significant.
It also felt normal for people sitting early to avoid missing this epoch-making event to have danced moments before to a song about Chris Gunter. La Ukraine fans held their flags up while Dafydd sang and cried. Fans around me cried. My friend Huw told me that the Ukrainian team hung a flag with messages from soldiers in their locker room. I’ve never watched a game of football in such an emotionally charged atmosphere. Enough to make you light.
Both sides had early chances. Playing football at Powerleague level, I confidently told Huw that the free kick that Bale lined up was on the wrong side for a left-footed player and minutes after the ball hit the back of the net and I regained consciousness. realized I just didn’t know what I was talking about. I wondered what ITV viewers of 30,000 Welsh fans were doing singing “Viva Gareth Bale, said he has a bad back, fuck the union jack” as a counter-narrative to the events at Buckingham Palace.
Who would have thought that the moment for the Sex Pistols of the platinum jubilee would come from Andriy Yarmolenko’s own goal celebration? It may not have been awarded to Bale, but he was instrumental in it; 32 years old, his contract up at Real Madrid, he is still able to make a difference. When it matters, he matters.
The roar at the final whistle had a crazy, hysterical tinge rare at football matches. The DJ stadium played Zombie Nation and we danced as if it were a field outside the M25 in 1988. Our players consoled their opponents who went to acknowledge their supporters. Fans from Wales and Ukraine took part in the thunderstorm and exchanged shirts. Nobody wanted to leave.
Dafydd came again and sang with the players. Thoughts have turned to Gary Speed, and others who would love it but are no longer with us. I’ve been dreaming about this moment since 1990. I’ve been celebrating with people who have wanted it much longer. I knew there would be delirium. I knew I would be happy. I just never expected it to be that way.
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