Wales’s qualification for the World Cup was a glorious, hysterical occasion | Elis James
As the full-time whistle blew during our scruffy 1-0 win over Northern Ireland at Euro 2016, the older man behind me was weeping at the prospect of watching Wales in the quarter-final of a major championship. I performatively puffed out my cheeks and raised an eyebrow, in that way people do after reading a BuzzFeed article about how many egg whites Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson eats in a day.
Feeling we had sufficiently bonded over Gareth McAuley’s own goal, and as he seemed to be in his 60s, I asked if he remembered Wales reaching the quarter- finals of our only World Cup appearance in 1958. “No,” he replied. “I was three.”
It’s hard to cling on to sporting history when even the old people you know are too young to remember it. But Sunday gave this Wales team a chance to create history of their own. As I walked to the pub to meet my friends before kick-off, door after door of the terrace houses in Canton, Cardiff, opened one after another, with identically dressed Welsh fans in red shirts and bucket hats leaving to do the same as me. It felt like the unrealistic opening scene of a terrible TV movie about football, directed by someone who has never been to a match, but is perfectly happy to be associated with a film where the star striker scores the winner in a cup final because he’s been told to stand in a different position at a corner kick by a ghost.
My walk was more apprehensive shuffle than confident strut, but as you walk to games of enormous significance it tends to be the defeats you remember as opposed to the victories. My mind drifted towards Romania in 1993, and Russia in 2003, the defining qualification defeats of my time as a supporter. One thing I remember so clearly about those games is how drunk everyone was before kick-off. But not a joyful drunk. A quiet, tense drunk. Think less “hammered at the wedding of a loved one”, more “I’d better have another pint before I get my leg amputated as there’s no anaesthetic on this Elizabethan pirate ship”.
Some things never change. At the bar I saw people buy rounds that would seem excessive for someone on death row, but there wasn’t the same disquiet I’d noticed in 1993 or 2003, especially among younger fans. Unburdened from years of disappointment, the younger supporters at the Lansdowne pub were having a fantastic time. It was the people of my age and older who were staring at their pints uneasily.
The players feel a different kind of nerves, because they’re able to directly affect matters. People in their 40s, like me, who’ve wanted Wales to qualify for a World Cup since Desert Orchid was in the running to win Sports Personality of the Year are forced to rely on more fanciful ways of influencing proceedings. We talked about how pathetic our pre-match rituals are: lucky trainers, lucky pubs, cutting toenails with lucky clippers. We had done them all anyway.
People took their seats in the Canton Stand earlier than usual, because no one wanted to miss Dafydd Iwan sing Yma o Hyd. For the uninitiated, Iwan is a 78-year-old folk singer and Yma o Hyd was written about the survival of the Welsh language and nation in the wake of Welsh devolution being rejected in 1979 and Thatcher winning the 1983 general election. For it to be sung so intensely by non-Welsh speakers and Welsh speakers alike would have been inconceivable a few years ago, and somehow felt both normal and massively significant.
It also felt normal that the people taking their seats early to avoid missing this epochal event had been dancing moments before to a song about Chris Gunter. The Ukraine fans held their flags aloft as Dafydd sang and cried. Fans around me cried. My friend Huw told me the Ukraine team had hung a flag with messages from soldiers in their changing room. I have never watched a game of football in such an emotionally-charged atmosphere. It was enough to make you lightheaded.
Both sides had early chances. Having played football at Powerleague level, I confidently told Huw the free-kick Bale was lining up was on the wrong side for a left-footed player and minutes after the ball had hit the back of the net and I’d gathered my senses I realised that I just don’t know what I’m talking about. I wondered what ITV’s viewers made 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 events at Buckingham Palace.
Who’d have thought the platinum jubilee’s Sex Pistols moment would come from celebrating an Andriy Yarmolenko own goal? It might not have been awarded to Bale, but he was instrumental in it; 32 years old, his contract up at Real Madrid, he is still able to make the difference. When it matters, he matters.
The roar at the final whistle had a frenzied, hysterical tinge rare at football matches. The stadium DJ played Zombie Nation and we danced as if it was a field outside the M25 in 1988. Our players consoled their opponents, who were walking over to acknowledge their supporters. Wales and Ukraine fans took part in the thunderclap and swapped shirts. No one wanted to leave.
Dafydd came on again and sang with the players. Thoughts turned to Gary Speed, and others who would have loved it but are no longer with us. I have dreamed about this moment since 1990. I celebrated with people who have wanted it for far longer. I knew there would be delirium. I knew I would feel elation. I just never expected it to be like this.
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