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The Galactico Sideshow

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Wales and Portugal have had quite different journeys at the European Championships in France.  Aside from a narrow loss against England in their second game, Wales have won all of their games at the competition and have gone from being solid to spectacular as the competition has progressed.  Portugal have shown flashes of inspiration and their attacking potential, but you still feel they haven’t flourished as yet. But then Wales more than coped with all of the flair Belgium could muster.

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A first ever semi-final for Wales should be the main story here.  But the press love a personal confrontation, a gladiatorial clash of titans.  Or, in this case, Galacticos.  At Real Madrid, Bale and Ronaldo are on the same side, though talk of them not getting on too well seems to rear up from time to time. And that helps fuel the story of confrontation, but as with the press in the UK, I’m sure a lot of this is maybe a little bit exaggerated to sell Spanish tabloids.  To get to where Bale and Ronaldo are, you need to focus on your own performance and your contribution to the team.

Yes, I’m going to talk about teamwork again.  The press is already putting a lot of focus on Bale and Ronaldo right up until kick off, and you can see why.  Everyone knows their names.  They’re the star players.  So their respective teams’ success will depend on their performances tomorrow night.  Or will it?

Watching Portugal, you sense that Ronaldo is the self-elected focal point for the team. He tries to get involved wherever he can, that’s for sure.  A laudable commitment, but it means that he wants to be everywhere, winning every ball and hitting every shot, and when a potential pass to him doesn’t materialise, he doesn’t always react like a real star should (but as sadly many do).

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Watching Bale is very different.  He very obviously has a higher level of skill than his teammates (as well as most on the planet). His composure on the ball, turn of pace and eye for a pass mark him out.  But he operates as a team member first and foremost.  The fact that he has superb individual talent is a bonus.  I haven’t yet seen Bale grab a game by the scruff of the neck and win it by himself, but that’s his role.  He has scored and assisted more than the others, but more as a result of adding a little finesse to a well-drilled unit, than waltzing past a whole opposition team single-handed.

And this Galactico sideshow will suit Chris Coleman just fine.  The press can concentrate on a one-on-one Real Madrid dust up and Wales can concentrate on playing as they have up till now.  As a unit.  As Wales. Not as Bale & Co.

Wales didn’t go into the game against Belgium as favourites and despite their performance last Friday, they’re still the bookies’ favourites to be flying home to Rhoose on Thursday morning.  Having seen both teams play and, for all the potential danger Portugal pose, they are still somewhat reliant on Ronaldo, who is desperate to be conductor, general and national hero.

Bale gets the headlines, gets quoted in papers and is on the majority of Welsh shirts, but Wales’ amazing story in France has been built on the solid foundations of a team with palpable passion, sticking to a plan and working hard for each other.

All people are talking about is football here in Cardiff now, regardless of prior interest levels, and I’ve heard numerous tales of kids wanting to perfect a ‘Robson-Kanu turn’ in the garden or want to get hair like Bale (not sure about that one).  It’s exciting and Football has always had the participation numbers in Wales, but hasn’t really had a winning team to match. I just hope the FAW are able to cope with the explosion of interest in the sport created by Wales’ endeavours.

Of course, if they don’t make it past the semi-final tomorrow, they’ll still get a heroes’ welcome and rightly be called winners anyway, but I have a feeling that the odyssey of this special Welsh team is not over just yet.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Getting Started

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Getting Started

I grew up in Soberton Heath.  It’s easy to miss.  If you blink as you drive through it, you’ll miss it entirely.  It’s in the middle of nowhere, tucked away in the rolling hills of rural Hampshire and consequently I grew up in what was effectively one big outdoor playground.  I was outside most days if the weather was ok; running around, climbing trees and evading farmers who took umbrage at our pre-teen trespassing.  So there you have it – I was an active child, destined to grow up playing sport, right?

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Droxford Primary School.  1987.  Year of the Great Storm™, memorably NOT forecast by Michael Fish.  A time of Wham! and Bananarama, not to mention a baby no-one puts in the corner…  It’s a summertime lunchtime so everyone’s outside on the playground. A game of football is being played.  And I love the game.  I did then as I do now.  So I was out there playing, right?

As an 8 year old, I was quiet and not very confident at all.  And this for me is what was critical in shaping my first years’ experience of (not) playing sport.  Now, this is only my view, my memory of that time, but it seemed that the boys (girls didn’t even get a look-in) who played football at break times were the most socially confident, rather than the most physically able.  The same group of boys who, it seemed to my shy younger self, dominated our school year.  The ‘cooler’ ones, the ones peers and teachers noticed.  The playground was tribal.  If I was an American Indian warrior, I would be less ‘Sitting Bull‘ and more ‘Reading Books’.

Like everywhere, there’s a social hierarchy at work at school.  As soon as kids become aware of themselves and others, this comes into play.  And so, the shy, bookish young boy that I was didn’t have the confidence to join in with playground sport.  And when you’re not involved at break time, it can mean you are behind the development curve in PE as well, which can reduce your sporting confidence further.

So, the end of the story then?  Luckily not.  As a confident, outgoing adult, I have found opportunities to play the sport I love most, through after-work five-a-side games, where ability is not the key attribute (but more on that another time).

Well, this post started hopefully enough didn’t it?  Then it kind of tailed off into a ‘poor me’ story..  Don’t worry, my posts will mostly be upbeat, odd and rambling. Allow me this fleeting introspection.

This post then.  What is my point?  I guess I have two.

Firstly, you don’t have to be an active child to be an active adult.  There are opportunities at every age to get involved.  Whether it’s playing sport after work with colleagues or friends, or opting for adapted sports when your body isn’t up to the rigours of the full game (I personally think that even now, Walking Football might be more my pace).

Secondly, if you have children, or are a teacher or coach, then do your best to encourage the less confident kids to get involved in sports, to try a few and hopefully find at least one they like. Winning is a great feeling, but not everyone can excel at sport.  Luckily, just getting active can increase your self-confidence off the field and improve your mental health, so there’s something in it for everyone.

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