In the post Brexit bewilderment, many people looked to sport to lighten the mood. It’s pretty clear that the UK is currently in a political and economical state of confusion, and while the long term effects of leaving the EU (which we haven’t even begun the process of yet) may not be as bad as some people feared and almost certainly won’t be as good as some people hoped, the short term effects are palpable and largely unpleasant.
As the votes were counted and the result became clear, there were still three UK teams in the European Football Championships and that seemed as good a diversion as any.
A match-up between Wales and Northern Ireland in the last 16 guaranteed at least one UK team a place in the quarter-finals. Hopes were obviously high that England would find their way to the last eight, with only international minnows Iceland to dispatch.
Talk was already rife of a classic quarter-final encounter between France and England – a fixture with added spice in ‘post-Brexit’ Europe.
Such talk was, alas, premature as England capitulated to Iceland, despite taking an early lead and fifty years on from winning the 1966 World Cup, the English football team continues to underachieve at major tournaments. This one particularly hurt, because Iceland are generally not considered a major footballing nation, although anyone who has seen them play in this tournament might consider that a little patronising. Perhaps the English players underestimated their opponents, perhaps they were mismanaged from the start – whatever the reasons, the recriminations will feature heavily on the back pages for months to come.
So the misery of Brexit was compounded for many English people by the humiliation of the national team.
But there remained a beacon of light. For us Welsh anyway.
Unlike England, we were busy overachieving like it was nobody’s business. Absent from any major footballing championship since 1958, the Welsh team has been doing rather well. A place in the quarter finals was beyond the expectations of any Welsh fan, but, after sneaking past Northern Ireland, there we were.On Friday night I sat down in front of my TV, with beer in hand, to cheer them on.
Belgium were a team in form, full of star players. The highest ranked team in the tournament and second in the world, there was little expectation that Wales would get past them. I think a good performance and a narrow defeat would have satisfied most Welsh fans.
An early Belgium goal and it seemed like even a dignified exit might be too much to hope for. As defender after defender picked up yellow cards, it looked like we might be in for a drubbing.
But that isn’t what happened at all. In fact we won.
We didn’t just win, from the moment we equalised, we properly outclassed and outperformed the second best team in the world.
And so now, even though Brexit is still dominating the news and even though I’ve been up to other blogworthy stuff, like watching (and briefly participating in) avant-garde theatre, I’m compelled to write this gratuitous piece about how awesome my national football team is.
We’re in the semi finals! People are genuinely talking about us as possible winners. And this is football, a sport that other countries are also good at. I mean I love it when we do well in rugby, but if we’re honest there are only about eight good teams in the world and three of them (New Zealand, South Africa and Australia) beat us way more than we beat them, and recently England, too, have moved out of sight, while we jostle with Ireland and France for the dubious honour of being ranked fifth in the world (a coveted position that we do currently hold). Having a good rugby team is still brilliant, but having a good football team has, until now, been unthinkable.
So we are, quite literally, in dreamland.
As a Welshman living in England, I expected perhaps grudging respect for my national team from my friends and neighbours, but actually, far from being bitter about the exit of their own team, my experience to date, is that English football fans are getting behind the Wales team with almost as much fervour and passion as my compatriots.
The English and Welsh voters might have got it horribly wrong over Brexit (at least that ‘remains’ my opinion until compelling evidence persuades me otherwise) but the shared love of a good underdog story might just see us through.
Talk of a ‘Wales V Iceland’ final still seems preposterous, but at the time of writing, there are still a few hours until they play France and it is a possibility.
That would be pretty cool, but truthfully Iceland’s ‘underdog’ story eclipses our ‘underdog’ story so I wouldn’t be too sorry if their journey ended tonight.
Whatever happens next, it has been a great tournament for Wales. Wednesday night might yield even more joy, but a semi-final berth will keep most of us happy for years to come.
The post-Brexit fall-out could be brutal for the Welsh, but whatever (admittedly self-inflicted) hardships may follow, we will, at least, always have Lille.