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A Dance with Dragons

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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.


You, Me, LGB&T

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After writing a few pieces on my experience with sport and exercise, the LGB&T Sport Cymru team asked if I would pen my thoughts on LGB&T people in sport.

This isn’t written from an LGB&T point of view, but based on my own experiences on sport and feeling like an outsider (a feeling many people can relate to I’m sure).  Apologies in advance for what is a longer than normal post by the way.

As I’ve said before, I didn’t enjoy sport much as a child and my experience at school was not a positive one.  I was (unbelievable as it might seem) a quiet, bookish child.  A nerd/geek/dweeb type.  Sport is a social function and part of the reason I didn’t get involved as much as I could have when I was younger is due to a lack of social confidence.  There were the ‘cool’ kids and then there were the rest of us.  The ‘cool’ ones were fiercely mainstream and any deviance from the accepted ‘norm’ could spell a place on the side lines.

This is where my world and the LGBT world overlaps.  I wasn’t mainstream as I was too quiet and preferred books to bunking off.  The mainstream boy culture was about chasing girls and being as much of a ‘man’ as possible, which included sporting prowess, but definitely not homosexuality.

laces 2

I’m sure my school was not alone in having the word ‘gay’ and a million variants, used as pejorative terms.  And when they were thrown at me (as they were at everyone at some point), I was hurt.  Not because being gay was a bad thing (I doubt I understood it really), but because you knew that the terms were intended to hurt and humiliate.  How much more hurtful would they have been if I was gay myself?  I honestly can’t imagine.

I had gay friends at school (probably more than I was actually aware of) and, like me, they often found solace and open minds within the arts fraternity, rather than on a pitch.  I don’t personally think that sport is homophobic in and of itself, but from an early age, I found it to be a common platform for the confident, mainstream kids to score social points, with little room for self-expression.  The most popular boys at school dated the prettiest girls and hit the most sixes.

Viewing sport wholly as a competitive activity, especially with young people, can inhibit inclusivity as someone’s differences can be wielded as weapons against them, and a weakened opponent is easier to defeat.  Without maturity, fairness can be pushed aside if it stands in the way of sporting success. The appeal of sport for me though is its ability to bring people together, regardless of background, culture or ability.

And what can we do to improve inclusivity? And what can I do?  Homophobia is an issue in society, not just sport, but sport has the potential to be a both a particular problem area and also a place where a difference can be made.  As a heterosexual man a key thing I can do is to not stand by when homophobic terms are used.  Sadly, the sport I love most, football, can be one of the worst culprits.  You can’t chastise or challenge a whole crowd, but if the person next to you uses a homophobic slur, I will say something to them.  In itself it may do little, but it enough people challenge this kind of language, it can make a difference.  I’m not about to suggest that football crowds can’t be racist for example, but you wouldn’t hear the same language now as you would some 10-20 years ago.  Things can improve.

I’ve heard homophobic language in my five a side league (only once, luckily) and I challenged the man on it at the time.  I said that I wasn’t happy with him saying what he’d said, and I’d report him to the league organisers if he continued.  He wasn’t happy, but he did stop.  Straight away.  He may have done it again the next week of course, but if he gets challenged EVERY time, it might stop.  And that’s another step in the right direction.

Essentially, part of what LGBT Sport Cymru stand for is the same thing.  It’s about putting the message out clearly that homophobia, biphobia and transphobia are unacceptable.  Full stop.  They partner with the major sports to make a stand that is clear and united.  If a governing body says it’s unacceptable, players and teams say it’s unacceptable AND we as fans do the same, there’s nowhere for the closed-minded, the bullies, to go.

If you heard your partner, your daughter, your son or your friend use racist language, there’s a good chance you’d react.  Hopefully you’d say that it wasn’t right and was offensive.  But would you say the same about homophobic language?  I hope so.  It’s no less damaging and has just as much place in a decent society, and that of course, is no place at all.

NB: This piece was written prior to the horrific mass shooting in Orlando on 12th June.

Dai and Goliath

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By 23rd June we will know the answer. The question on many people’s minds, one discussed in hostelries across the nation, will be decided. No, I’m not talking about whether Britain remains in the EU. I am of course talking about whether England and Wales’ respective football teams can remain in the Euros beyond the group stage. 

1992. The European Championships are two weeks away and the Danish team are relaxing. At home. On the beach. Like most of Europe, looking forward to a football feast on the telly. 

Then, the news comes through that Yugoslavia are being dropped from the tournament due to the continuing war in that fractured state. So Denmark, a country of just five million people and no great footballing pedigree, have a fortnight to muster a team for the competition. 

In the group stages they draw their first game, lose their second game and scrape a win in their third. Their unlikely route to an improbable final included a semi final penalty shootout before beating the mighty Germany in the final. 

Schmeichal’s audition for ‘Joseph’ was a success

A team that wasn’t meant to be there and certainly wasn’t meant to win. A relative minnow went on to win a competition, whose motto that year was, so aptly, “Small is Beautiful”. 

2004. Another unfancied team, Greece, who’d not previously won a tournament match, put in a series of Herculaen efforts to battle their way to glory. Their victory wasn’t often pretty, but their togetherness and tactics saw them prevail. Player of the tournament, Zagorakis said,

The Greek soul is, and always will be, our strength

I know all about supporting a team with overpaid superstars and overblown expectation. England may go far this summer and as an Englishman I will hope they do. But anything short of victory will lead to media vitriol and a painful, public dissection. 

Wales on the other hand, my adopted home for over half my life, go into their games with less pressure. Predicted to slog it out with Slovakia to scrape through the group stages before being dispatched by a ‘big’ side. 

The build up to the Wales campaign has been about the bringing the country together, being ‘Together Stronger’, and it is this powerful team spirit that has enabled Wales to punch above its population weight before (most medals per capita in the last Commonwealth Games, for example).

The only way I’d get in the team

For Wales, getting to their first tournament since 1958 is a huge success in itself. Every stage they reach beyond the group stage is a bigger, more exciting achievement still.
So like Denmark and Greece before them, I really hope that Wales play without fear, enjoy the experience and go further than the bookies and media predict. Whatever happens though, they’re already heroes in Wales, and can dream of being champions. And why not? Maybe the 1992 tournament motto of ‘Small is Beautiful’ can come true again.

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