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.
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).
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.