For Welsh Fans, The Biggest Challenge is To Believe This is Real
Photo: Georgi Licovski/EPA

For Welsh Fans, The Biggest Challenge is To Believe This is Real

Wales had genuinely come to believe that footballing success was something that only happened to other nations. Now that it's happening to them, the feeling is something close to shock.
July 6, 2016, 1:47pm

When ITV spoke to Craig Bellamy on Friday night, the former Wales captain was near hysterical. "What a surreal moment. It really is," said Bellamy, before bursting into another fit of laugher. "We're in the semi-final of a European Championships. Incredible."

While clearly elated, Bellamy was also in a state of shock. His mood summed up the feeling that Wales' win over Belgium produced across the country. Between the singing and flinging plastic beers cups into the air and more singing, ours is a nation stunned.

It is not hard to understand why. It has been repeated dozens of times during Euro 2016 that Wales had not been to a major tournament for 58 years; it has not often been said how bad those years truly were. Miserable, awful, torturous decades in which England won a World Cup, while every other home nation and Ireland travelled to at least two major tournaments.

There were a few near misses, but for the most part Wales were a floundering international minnow, sinking without a trace below recently independent ex-Soviet states (they wanted it more) and languishing towards the bottom of the FIFA Rankings (117th less than five years ago). There was the promise of Gary Speed's tenure, followed by the bleak numbness of his death. As recently as 2012, a Wales side that included Bale, Williams, Ramsey, Allen, and Gunter was hammered 6-1 by Serbia. The idea that the same group might one day play on the biggest stage – let alone become stars – seemed almost laughable.

The nineties featured the odd high, but far more lows for Welsh football // PA Images

It is, in fact, a strange feeling simply to hear the Welsh national side talked about by outsiders. It is unreal to hear Gary Lineker calling the Belgium win one of the most impressive performances from a British football team on the BBC. Welsh football was, by virtue of its failings, a niche interest that only those with an emotional attachment ever became involved with. We shared a strange set of common memories (the sound of Ian Gwyn Hughes' commentary, coming down a crackling phone line from some eastern outpost, will echo through my mind until my final days). To hear Wales talked about by the mainstream feels as though an old school friend has suddenly become an overnight sensation.

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It is fair to say that the class of 2016 has now overtaken the 1958 side as Wales' greatest international team. Former Spurs and Swansea star Cliff Jones, who played in all of Wales' games at the '58 World Cup, has been keen to emphasise this: "We had the spirit of 1958 but it's a long time ago, it's time it was put to bed," he told Sky News after the Belgium game. "Those boys of 2016 have certainly done that. I'm so pleased for them and so proud of them."

Jones could not have been more right: it was vital that a new story was written to help the sport survive in Wales, where rugby has dominated the national psyche to an extent that could be called detrimental. So few Welsh people even remember the 1958 World Cup. Given that you'd need to be close to 70 and have been in possession of a TV at the time – no guarantee in 1950s Wales – the number who recall actually watching the team of Jones, Charles, and Allchurch is exceedingly small.

Contrast that with 2016. Friday's quarter-final victory was a new record TV audience for a live sporting event in Wales, with a peak of 1.27m – more than a third of the population – tuning in to see the game. This is a match that will live in the popular consciousness of Welsh people for generations to come. 1958 had become a folk-memory, something we all knew about but couldn't necessarily feel attached to: St. David, Owain Glyndŵr, going down fighting against Pele's Brazil. 2016 belongs to a nation.

That's not to say we know how to deal with this. There is no precedent for it, no newspaper pullout guide or glossy wallchart that explains how we should feel. Wales had genuinely come to believe that footballing success was for other nations, accepted that they'd need to find a second team to support every two years. While Wales are playing their first Euros semi-final, this will be Portugal's fifth (if you're looking for a good omen, they've won just one of those). On the other side of the draw, France are also playing their fifth semi and have won the tournament twice; Germany have made this stage an incredible nine times and won the tournament on four previous occasions. The Germans must see this as routine by now. How strange for them.

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There was no genuine sense of expectation for the Belgium game and, with Ben Davies and star of the tournament Aaron Ramsey missing, it's difficult for Welsh fans to expect a win from the Portugal game. Dream? Sure, it's probably safe to indulge in a bit of that at this stage. But it is surreal to actually consider the possibility of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau being played at Stade de France on Sunday evening. If it is, the entire Welsh contingent will surely be in tears. Emotional bunch beneath it all, see.

Welsh fans don't want to go home – and may yet be around for another few days // Khaled Elfqi/EPA

The one thing Welsh fans must do is enjoy this experience, because – without wishing to sound too much like a fatalistic Welshman – it will quite possibly never be this good again. Even if Wales somehow topped the achievements of 2016, how could it compare with the freshness and the complete shock of the past month? In a very real sense, Welsh international football has been re-born this summer. Any success that follows will be in debt to this.

Wales is not big enough for this to become the new normal. Unlike England, there will not always be enough quality players to ensure qualification for nearly every tournament. The golden generation will pass, and eventually Wales will struggle once more; see the current travails of Scotland for an example of how that might look. Perhaps it will be another 58 years before Wales are back in the same position again. Given the current crop of players, almost all in their twenties, you would suspect not. But if it there is another long wait ahead, we will always have this. And when Wales reach the semi-finals of the 2074 World Cup, you can bet we'll still be talking about what Chris Coleman's boys did at France 2016.