‘The Welsh have defended their actions,’ is not a sentence you will have been used to reading during Euro 2016. While England’s players have been criticised for their miserable football, England’s manager has been criticised for his lack of inspiration and England’s fans have been criticised for their behaviour, Wales’ tournament progress has been nothing but serene. That was until England were eliminated at the hands of Iceland on Monday evening, and the Welsh were pictured celebrating the result.
“No regrets,” Chris Gunter said when asked about the video. “It might have looked slightly over the top but it wasn’t meant that way. We were just ever so proud to be the last home nations team in the tournament and football has a funny way of bringing out emotions.”
That is, of course, utter b*llocks. Gunter was intelligent enough to play the game and pour cold water on any controversy, but there is an obvious explanation for Wales’ joy. Having lost to England, Wales have outlasted them in this tournament. Given that all but two of their squad play in the English leagues, and five of them have teammates in England’s squad, this is an evident cause for celebration. That annoying cousin, with its great job and new car that family members won’t stop talking to you about, just got sacked and crashed its car driving back home.
The accusation, or at least insinuation, of Wales’ players is that this was a ‘small-time’ reaction, beneath a team that is preparing for a quarter-final. Again, there is an easy answer: Wales are a small-time country in football terms. That’s not intended as an insult (and I want to write that out three times for emphasis).
Who are we to dictate how a group of players react? Controversy has become a notion completely turned on its head, the reaction dwarfing the action. ‘Twitter reacts…’ has become the headline of our time. Does anybody really care how Wales dealt with England’s exit, other than perhaps Chris Coleman? Disrespect? I suspect that England players will survive.
Before the tournament began, Wales were told that reaching the knockout stages was their ceiling, but they have made such predictions (yes, by me too) look foolish. On Friday night they face Belgium for a place in the last four. High morale has underpinned their success. The mood in the camp seems relaxed, the squad eating ice creams and playing beach football with locals on Dinard’s Plage de l’Éclus. These were not PR-sculpted photo opportunities. There should be no need for Wales to apologise for enjoying themselves.
Let’s take this outside the context of this summer, too. This is Wales’ first tournament for 58 years. On Saturday they won their first knockout match at a major tournament in their history. This is a team walking on untrodden ground. In July 2011, Wales were ranked 112th in the world, directly below United Arab Emirates, Azerbaijan and Faroe Islands. This summer is an unlikely end of a five-year journey. It would be deeply concerning if the mood among the players was not of jubilation.
Wales are not the favourites against Belgium in Lille. The suspicion is that Coleman’s squad will finally meet the combination of natural talent and form that will end their tournament hopes. Yet we’ve made that mistake before. Wales won one and drew the other of their two qualifying games against Belgium. Marc Wilmots’ team tend to play a slightly anarchic brand of football which leaves very few players to protect the defence when the attacking midfielders stream forward. Are Wales not set up to exploit that exact opponent?
Yet the result is (almost) beside the point. Friday night is not just about Wales aiming to reach a new peak, but a country celebrating the achievements that have already been attained. This is a football team, manager, media and public all pulling in the same direction; that’s incredibly powerful.
Unlike England, there will be no fall-out in reaction, whatever the result. We will not hear ‘insight’ into which products the Wales squad have advertised, which computer games they have endorsed or how many children their partners have from previous relationships. We will not ‘learn’ how the celebrations for Iceland cost Chris Coleman’s team against Belgium. You don’t need a root-and-branch review when you’re having fun in the treehouse.