Elis James used to have a bit in his stand-up routine about Wales having not qualified for a major tournament finals since 1958. “I’ll just put that into some perspective for you,” he would say. “That’s prior to the invention of the duvet.” He probably won’t mind losing that bit of material now.
James, a comedian, actor and – we’re sure he wouldn’t mind us saying – turbo-Wales fan, is among the 24-30,000 of his compatriots out in France, who have thus far seemed to provide an absolutely perfect example of football fandom. Such is the general awfulness of the sport’s world, the reality that your team probably isn’t going to win anything and just how seriously we all tend to take football, it’s easy to lose that this is all supposed to be fun. Wales fans look like they’re having fun, and bloody loads of it.
“It was like those very unrealistic videos that football associations prepare when they’re bidding to hold a major tournament,” James says of the atmosphere in Bordeaux, the night before Wales beat Slovakia 2-1 on Saturday. “We had a big game of football in the town square between the Welsh and Slovaks, you had Cardiff, Swansea and Newport [fans] in the same pub, which is actually massive for us, because it hasn’t been like that. [People were] singing La Marseillaise in a fountain, with lots of French people clapping. On the Friday we sort of celebrated like we’d won the tournament, when a ball hadn’t been kicked. People were hugging each other….It’s changed me profoundly.”
When you haven’t been in this position for 58 years, it’s not a surprise that the general feeling is one of giddiness, of supreme delight to simply be there. In the generations since 1958, Wales have been within one game of qualification 11 times, but never made it. They won their qualification group in 1976 and thus reached the playoffs: at that stage the European Championship ‘finals’ consisted just of semis and a final, so that was technically a two-legged quarter-final. They lost to Yugoslavia, and ever since it’s been a consistent diet of disappointment and deflation.
“I never thought it would happen,” says James, who was in the Cardiff Arms Park in 1993 when Paul Bodin missed that penalty against Romania. “There can’t be a comparable record [of near-misses] in world football. I’d read up on all the classic disappointments – Ninian Park ’85, Scotland ’77, the lights going out at the Vetch in ’81 and all that sort of stuff, so I’d written it off. I just thought ‘that’s that.’”
That letting go of expectation certainly seems to be a factor in why there’s such a remarkable atmosphere of positivity among the Welsh fans: other, bigger nations take mere qualification for granted, a means to something rather than an end in itself, but not Wales. “This isn’t my theory but Jonny Owen’s (the film director who made ‘I Believe In Miracles’). He thought there was just an attitude change in our fans: we had songs about how we’d never qualify, and as soon as you stop caring it happens. It was sort of a Buddhist philosophy, when you don’t chase it [it comes].”
But perhaps the thing that makes these Welsh fans so endearing (and it’s a minefield trying to avoid being heinously patronising here: please, trust that isn’t the intention) is that they combine this delight at simply being in France with a quiet confidence in the team. For this team really is pretty good: Chris Coleman, and of course Gary Speed before him, have managed to create a solid unit that is more than the sum of its parts, while at the same time having a world superstar who can win the game on his own.
The bonus being that Gareth Bale is, if you like, ‘one of the lads’, genuinely part of the team (he not only plays in friendlies, but travels to ones he’s injured for) rather than a celebrity interloper who tries to do everything on his own, then shrugs with a ‘What do you expect with this lot?’ look when it doesn’t come off. The ‘Together, stronger’ line that the Welsh FA promote is one of those rare examples of a marketing slogan that’s actually true. All of which creates sort of optimism that’s free of expectation, and thus to an extent free of pressure. Positivity that still comes with nerves, but without them being crippling. Confidence without entitlement.
“When the last time you qualified for something the Suez crisis had only just stopped being in the news,” says James, “it’s very hard [to expect too much]. Deep down we know we’re a good team…I think if you’d asked any of the 24-30,000 supporters out there if we’re good enough to do that, they’d all have said yes.”
“Certainly amongst my friends, people my age, our main ambition at this tournament was to score a goal,” he continues. “I always said I don’t mind if we lose every game, I just want to be there. I think England fans want to win it, but know they won’t. Whereas we’re just happy to be here.”
There also seems to be an absence of parochialism that, while understandable and often pretty entertaining, is nonetheless essentially useless and misses the point of a tournament like this. A small team/sport way of thinking, if you will. “There’s none of that rugby mentality of ‘As long as we beat the English…’ because deep down we want to get to the last 16. Everyone I’ve talked to said ‘I’d cope with losing to England if we beat Russia and Slovakia.’”
Even from an English perspective, it’s difficult not to get behind them. Only one thing can spoil it all for James, though. “I just hope there’s no aggro,” he says, “because I am soft as sh*t.”
Elis James is making daily videos from France, and also a Friday evening radio show for the BBC. Find all that here.