As the full-time whistle sounded in our 1-0 win over Northern Ireland at Euro 2016, the older man behind me was crying at the thought of seeing Wales in the quarter-finals final of a major championship. I performatively puffed out my cheeks and raised an eyebrow, like people do after reading a BuzzFeed article about how many egg whites Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson eats per day.
Feeling we were sufficiently linked by Gareth McAuley’s own goal, and as he looked to be in his 60s, I asked him if he remembered Wales reaching the quarter-finals in our only Cup appearance of the world in 1958. “No,” he replied. “I was three years old.”
It’s hard to hold on to sports history when even the old people you know are too young to remember it. But Sunday gave this Wales side a chance to make history of their own. As I made my way to the pub to meet my friends before kick-off, door after door of terraced houses in Canton, Cardiff, opened one after another, with identically dressed Welsh fans in shirts red and bucket hats leaving to do the same thing as me. It looked like the unrealistic opening scene of a terrible football TV movie, made by someone who has never been to a game, but is perfectly happy to be associated with a film where the star striker marks the winner of a cup final because he was told to stand in a different position at a corner kick by a ghost.
My walk was more of a mix of apprehension than a confident leg, but when you walk into games of huge importance, it’s usually the losses you remember rather than the wins. My mind drifted to Romania in 1993 and Russia in 2003, the defining qualifying defeats of my time as a supporter. One thing I remember so clearly from those games was how drunk everyone was before kick-off. But not a happy drunk. A quiet, tense drunk. Think less ‘hammered at a loved one’s wedding’, more like ‘I better drink another pint before I have my leg amputated because there’s no anesthesia on that Elizabethan pirate ship’.
Some things never change. At the bar, I saw people buying rounds that would have seemed excessive for a death row inmate, but there wasn’t the same trepidation that I noticed in 1993 or 2003, especially among younger fans. Cleansed of years of disappointment, the young supporters of the Lansdowne pub were having a fantastic time. It was people my age and older who were looking at their pints with concern.
Players feel a different kind of nerfs, as they are able to directly influence things. People in their 40s, like me, who have wanted Wales to qualify for a World Cup since Desert Orchid were in contention to win Sports Personality of the Year are forced to rely on fancier means to influence the debates. We talked about how pathetic our pre-game rituals are: lucky coaches, lucky pubs, nail clipping with lucky clippers. We had done them all anyway.
People took their seats in the Canton stand earlier than usual, as no one wanted to miss Dafydd Iwan singing Yma o Hyd. For the uninitiated, Iwan is a 78-year-old folksinger and Yma o Hyd was written about the survival of the Welsh language and nation following the rejection of Welsh devolution in 1979 and Thatcher’s victory in the 1983 general election. For it to be sung so loudly by non-Welsh and Welsh alike would have been inconceivable a few years ago, and it seemed both normal and overwhelmingly meaningful.
It also seemed fitting that people taking their seats early to avoid missing this historic event had been dancing moments before to a song about Chris Gunter. Ukrainian fans waved their flags as Dafydd sang and cried. The fans around me cried. My friend Huw told me that the Ukraine team hung a flag with messages from soldiers in their locker room. I have never watched a football match in such an emotional atmosphere. It was enough to make you dizzy.
Both teams had early chances. Having played football at Powerleague level, I confidently told Huw that the free kick Bale lined up was the wrong way for a left footed player and a few minutes after the ball hit the back of the net and I gathered my senses, I realized that I just don’t know what I’m talking about. I wondered what ITV viewers thought of 30,000 Welsh fans singing ‘Viva Gareth Bale, said he had a bad back, fuck the union jack’ as a counter-narrative to the Buckingham Palace events.
Who would have thought that the Sex Pistols moment of 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; At 32, his contract up at Real Madrid, he is still capable of making a difference. When it matters, it matters.
The roar at the final whistle had a frantic, hysterical tinge rare in football matches. The stadium DJ played Zombie Nation and we danced like it was a pitch outside the M25 in 1988. Our players consoled their opponents who came forward to greet their supporters. Supporters from Wales and Ukraine took part in the thunderclap and swapped shirts. Nobody wanted to leave.
Dafydd came back and sang with the players. Thoughts turned to Gary Speed and others who would have liked it but are no longer with us. I’ve dreamed of this moment since 1990. I’ve celebrated it with people who have wanted it for much longer. I knew there would be delirium. I knew I would feel elation. I didn’t expect it to be like this.
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