Sports

Wales vs. England: An Age-Old Rivalry Searching for Modern Relevance

Wales vs. England might appear to be a heated local derby but, in football terms at least, there is very little modern history to stoke the fires ahead of this game.
June 15, 2016, 3:25pm
PA Images

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

An international match between Wales and England used to be one of the most common events in world football. During the Home Nations Championship – which ran from 1884 to 1984, with breaks for the two World Wars – they would play each other on an annual basis.

Today the relationship between the two is very different. While the public would once have shrugged at another England-Wales encounter, the match is now one of the standout games of the Euro 2016 group stages. Not that this is entirely welcome. If there was one team that Wales wanted to avoid, it was England. Manager Chris Coleman said as much on the eve of the draw: "It's a distraction I think we can do without," he told talkSPORT, believing that the attention placed on such an immediate rivalry would draw focus way from his players. That public admission only served to heighten the tension in the room when the inevitable happened, and the two sides were drawn together in Group B.

There's been some needle between the two this past week, with quotes from both sets of players ramping up tensions ahead of the game. Gareth Bale's claim that no England player would get into the Wales side may not have been entirely truthful, but at least he's getting into the swing of things.

It had to be this way, of course. After 58 years in the international wilderness, Wales could not emerge blinking into the dimmed lights of an innocuous group. It could only ever be full-beam headlamps of the TEAM ENGLAND juggernaut heading straight towards them, horns blaring, St. George's cross flags flapping menacingly in the wind. It sometimes feels as though Wales can't do anything, cannot be anywhere, without the English popping up uninvited. Wales were finally stepping out on their own, mature and confident, only for their step-dad to turn up and remind the world that they're still living in the spare room, and not paying any bloody rent either.

This is the biggest match of the opening phase for both, though undeniably bigger for the Welsh, absent so long from major tournaments and therefore without experience of such high-profile intra-island clashes. England have met a home nation at this juncture before – Scotland, Euro 96, that Gazza goal – and played innumerable big matches in the latter stages of tournaments.

Given their proximity, it would be easy to assume that this is a grudge match, that the two sides are rivals whose fans know and loathe one another. But while Wales vs. England is among the most intense rivalries in sport, football is wrong game for it. It is the rugby rivalry between the two that sees passions stirred the most, particularly on the Welsh side. When Kelly Jones of the Stereophonics sang "As long as we beat the English we don't care" he captured the feeling of many of his fellow countrymen. For Wales, rugby is a religion, England the demons who must be exorcised.

The rugby rivalry between Wales and England is as fierce as they come // PA Images

The roots of this rivalry are not purely sporting. A game of such fervour requires class-based, socio-economic, and nationalist undertones, all of which you could to some extent apply to football. But it also stems from the simple fact that the two teams play each other at rugby on an annual basis, at minimum, with each new encounter adding to the battle tapestry. To the victors the spoils; for the losers, another round of drinks and the knowledge that there will be a chance to avenge the defeat in just 12 months time.

There is no such frequency in the beautiful game. The word "Wales" in Old English means "land of foreigners" and, in international football, this remains true even in 2016. You could make the claim that England vs. Wales is a rivalry in geographic terms only.

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Wales won the last Home Nations encounter between the two – 1-0 at the Racecourse in May '84 – but haven't beaten England in the 32 years since. Part of that barren run is down to simple lack of opportunity: there have been just four meetings between Wales and England since a Mark Hughes goal separated them in Wrexham.

And so the two sides are strangers to one another, really. There has been no chance for a genuine rivalry to develop in the modern age, for it to take root and flourish. True rivalries – where old scores are settled and songs composed about the opposition – need time to develop. They come from fiercely contested competitive matches, which is one of the reasons why England share far more potent rivalries with Germany and Portugal than with their neighbours. They have played more games against San Marino than Wales in the past decade.

All of which adds a strange subplot to this game. To audiences across Europe, it might seem as though Wales vs. England will be the most heated meeting of the Euro 2016 group stages. But we live in a much bigger world now, one where rivalries don't stem solely from being next to each other on a map.

Ryan Giggs playing one of his two games against England // PA Images

Of course, there are other factors that will build tension for this game. Wales and England share a complicated relationship. If the step-dad analogy is apt, then England equally must see Wales as an unwanted step-son; a child showing no love or affection but happy to take a bit of money while refusing to move out. The Welsh reply would like be: "Well, we'd like to move out, but you've kept us around for so long that we don't know how to cope alone anymore."

It is true that Wales remains dependent on England economically. Though it has some political powers via the Welsh Assembly, these are at the behest of Westminster and can in theory be withdrawn. Wales largely uses England's laws and has an English head of state, as well as a Prince of Wales whose connection to the country is questionable.

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Wales even remains dependent on England for players – several, notably skipper Ashley Williams, were born in England – while the Welsh domestic league barely matches the standard of England's non-league divisions. It's no coincidence that the rebirth of Welsh international football has come alongside Swansea City's rise to the English Premier League.

All of this can add to a Welsh feeling of being dependent or, in a more extreme view, of being oppressed. It is easy to forget in 2016, when Wales has a national consciousness and a unique identity, but the nation was seen as little more than an extension of England until the middle of the 20th century. Wales did not have its own capital city until 1955, with London filling the role, and didn't adopt its now-iconic flag until 1959.

Against this backdrop, sport offers Wales its best chance to get one over on their old rulers, a narrative that is played out across international football (Senegal beating France at the 2002 World Cup, Ukraine overcoming Russia in 1998 and so on). When it's just 11 people on a pitch – and one of them is Gareth Bale – there is always a chance of an upset. A Welsh win in Lens would be perhaps the greatest achievement in the national side's history; for England, victory would simply represent an expected win over a side that has no tournament experience.

The presence of Gareth Bale has given Welsh fans genuine hope of beating England // PA Images

Much has been made of the possibility of violence between these two sets of fans. I don't envisage that. There will undoubtedly be some bad blood, but no more than would be expected of any two groups of fans who've been drinking and wound themselves up watching tournament football. The idea that Wales and England have a sufficiently virulent football rivalry to go to war in the streets is far fetched.

In fact, all we have seen so far is unity. On Tuesday there were reports that England and Wales fans staying in Lille ahead of Thursday's game had been attacked by Russian ultras. In response, a group of English and Welsh face sang "Fuck off Russia, we're England and Wales." Sometimes, you can find common ground with your step-dad; sometimes, that step-child seems alright after all.

While Wales and England want to beat each other on the pitch, neither set of fans wants to see the other physically injured. The two countries share a common culture; many support the same football clubs and would be standing side by side were this a European tie for Liverpool or Manchester United. Your average English fan has more in common with his Welsh counterpart than those running the country back home.

Rivals? Sort of. Enemies? Not in football terms. In reality, the rivalry that is supposed to exist between these two sides is largely extinct in 2016. England and Wales are by no means a happy couple, but they are certainly not going to need pulling apart come Thursday afternoon. Then again, perhaps the game in Lens will be enough to re-ignite the fire. At the very least, it could breath new life into a rivalry that feels at best lukewarm.

@Jimmy_Weeks