England. A population of 53 million. A team full of stars (so they say). What words spring to mind when I think about their football team as a fan? Expectation. Pressure. Complacency. Disappointment. Booing. Fighting.
I can’t choose the national team I support as it was decided when I born, all those years ago in sunny Hampshire. So I’m stuck with England, for better, for worse. There have been good times, memorable results and joy, real joy as a supporter. But too many of my fellow fickle fans and much of the media lambasts the side when they fail to get past a quarter final, despite this being a fairly accurate indication of their place in the footballing hierarchy.
Wales. A population less than half that of London. A team of Bale, Ramsey and a little known supporting cast, many from the second tier of UK football. What words are conjured up though? Hope. Adventure. Team spirit. Support. Singing.
Living in Wales for 19 years has allowed me to share vicariously in what it means to be Welsh and cheering for Wales. It’s hard to not get caught up in. It’s infectious. Over the years I’ve mainly seen it through rugby. Every six nations game is an event bursting with national pride. And, win or lose, the anthem always comes from the heart, as do countless other songs during the match and long after, songs that echo through bars and streets and homes. Songs that say, above all, ‘We are Wales’.
The cheers for England are genuine and the suggestion that their support isn’t passionate is misplaced I think, but the difference for me is that you feel that the English supporters are cheering for the team and the Welsh are cheering for the country itself. This makes for a support that is unflinching and all the more potent for it.
The media reaction to, and interpretation of England and Wales’ respective fortunes is telling as well. When either team wins, there’s euphoria in the press and a pinch of hyperbole thrown in to boot, but the London press never misses a chance to knock down what they so readily build up. So if England win, but play badly, there’s criticism of the under-performing players and the result gets missed a little. If they lose (god forbid!) then there’s a full blown investigation and castigation of all involved.
Wales lost to England, their fiercest rivals, last week and the Welsh press’ reaction – as well as that of the FAW and many people I spoke to – was to praise the players’ efforts and push a message of moving on to the next game together. Learning. Growing. Improving.
And this is why people are right to say that no-one will want to play Wales in the next round.
Not because they just beat Russia 3-0, ran rampant and could have scored more.
Not because they top Group B when bookies had them scrapping for third place.
And not because of Bale. One of the best players in the world he certainly is, but other countries have their stars too. His fellow Galactico, Ronaldo, has not seen his team reach the same kind of levels of intensity and effort, reflected in their underwhelming performances so far.
In this competition, any eleven players on their day can beat any other eleven players. But to beat a country itself is a different, tougher proposition and that is what faces Wales’ opponents in the next round. Defeating a nation with the spirit of Wales is no small task and one no team will relish facing.