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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.

Mind Games

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Mind Games

I’m a jolly person.  If you’ve met me you’ll probably agree.  Others would say my chirpy demeanour is something that comes across pretty strongly in fact.  So, I’m happy, right?  My mental state is healthy, yes? Well yes, luckily it is.

But it isn’t always and, a long time ago, I went through a pretty bad patch.  Like everyone else, I have had low points in my life.  I consider myself lucky that the only episode of what I’d call depression, lasted just a few months (though it seemed much longer at the time).  It was brought about by a relationship ending and compounded by being during the ‘what do I do with my life?’ period between studentdom and proper adulthood.

I won’t dwell on the catalysts however as it can be different for different people at different times.   Sometimes there’s no catalyst at all.  That’s why it’s not as simple as thinking someone suffering will ‘get over it’. As the causes can vary, the symptoms can too.  Some will cry at random moments. Some will withdraw from social interaction.  Some will drink or smoke more. Some will sleep less (At my lowest point I didn’t sleep for what seemed like weeks in a row). And some symptoms will manifest themselves physically.  My eczema is worse when I’m stressed, for example.  But more widely, headaches, chest pains or stomach problems can be experienced.  And some symptoms won’t be obvious to others, or even the one suffering.  How can you deal with something that isn’t identified?

Mental health is far more complicated than the black and white divide of being either okay or clinically depressed.  This is not just about ‘breakdowns’. Mental health, like physical health exists on a broad spectrum that we are all on somewhere.  We all have bad days and good days of course, that’s natural.  What we need to watch out for in ourselves and those we care for is when things go beyond our version of ‘normal’ and behaviour changes.  Whatever the cause of poor mental health, short or long term, others being understanding and empathetic is key.  It’s hard to explain how you feel when you feel mentally weak or out of control, but all those around can do is listen and be sensitive to people’s feelings (as we all should anyway of course)

There are a number of lifestyle choices that can positively affect your mental health and luckily most are accessible by all.  Getting enough sleep, eating well and exercising are all known contributors to both a healthier mind as well as a healthier body.   The trouble with the exercise part though, as readers of my own blog will know, is that I really have to push myself to do a decent amount of exercise.  I didn’t have sport in my life growing up.  I remember PE seeming like punishment and the playground felt like it was dominated by the more socially confident children.

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Missing out on sport when you’re younger can make it harder to motivate yourself to do enough as an adult. I only really started doing sport as an adult and I consider myself lucky to work for Sport Wales for many reasons, but a key one is the culture of playing sport together.  Staff frequently play badminton, run together or play football at lunchtimes. It aids communication and team-working, the benefit of which is felt back in the office. The sport I enjoy most, by far, is football.  Following England and Southampton FC has been an exercise in sadistic, self-inflicted torture over the years due to their overwhelming ability to disappoint, but I really love actually playing the game (albeit badly).

Team sports like football have double strength mental health boosting powers.  First there is the exercise itself. Serotonin and endorphin production increases as you get a sweat on, which causes that buzz you have from getting physical.  There is no way I know to get the same positive feeling that is both free and doesn’t cause you damage (unlike many of our most popular vices).  Second, there is the social aspect.  The camaraderie created through being on a team is hard to beat.  I play on a lunchtime as well as after work in a five-a-side league and genuine friendships have been forged through doing so.

I cannot overstate the benefits felt from playing sport.   When I do, I don’t stress about work and when I return to the office my mind feels energised too, quite the opposite of the sluggish fog that envelopes you when you eat too much for lunch and just want to snooze…

NB. This piece was originally written for Mental Health Awareness Week for Sport Wales.

Fitting in Fitness

Fitting in Fitness

I jogged home from work yesterday.  Which is possible as I live within trebuchet range of work.  I would say a stone’s throw, but I needed something that suggests a distance greater than one of my own weedy overarm lobs.

Walking in takes about 35-40 minutes.  This isn’t a great chore, particularly as the last part takes me through Cardiff’s fantastic Bute Park. I also get plenty of time to listen to podcasts or power ballads, depending on both my mood and whether there’s anyone around to see my air guitar solos.

Of course running is quicker than walking, but it isn’t my favourite form of exercise to be honest.   I much prefer a team sport or two.  I play football twice a week and would happily play more, but you need a fair few other people to do it and some flat open space, so it’s not always practical.

But, the great thing about running, and part of the reason events like Parkrun have taken off, is that you don’t need much equipment to do it and you can do it on your own as well, at any time.  All you need is a t-shirt, shorts and trainers (or not even the trainers if you’re a budding Zola Budd).

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Even better, for me, is that I don’t have to take extra time out of my day to exercise as the pavement and paths are my very own running track.  So I get a little bit fitter, a little less fatter AND my commute is only 20 minutes.  Win-win.  If you can find exercise that you enjoy, that’s great, but not everyone has the time and/or inclination to commit to as much activity as we all really should.  So, if sport is not a huge priority to you, what can you do?

Do little bits of exercise, perhaps. The internet is not just useful for finding amusing cat videos (though I suspect 90% of traffic is related to the worthy subject), it also has content on nearly every topic, exercise included.  And yes, there are many fitness videos online.  I’ve tried a few at Fitness Blender, for example, as this site allows you to set the time, difficulty and equipment parameters to suit.  Flexibility is the appeal here.  There are of course others around, including more free ones from sites like the NHS Fitness Studio.

So, if you can really only spare twenty minutes, you can do bite-size workouts.  That’s gotta be worth something, right?  Not too many calories burned perhaps, but do a few and it adds up.  Plus I understand that exercise releases dolphins, which is a nice, as they shouldn’t be captive.

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It’s important that whatever you do, it is something you can keep up.  Like the crash diet or the month off booze, a splurge of sport will have a short term impact and give you a nice rush, but it’s better to get to a level you can maintain over time.  A couple of games of football a week, plus two or three little runs is my level right now.  And I feel better for it, I really do.  Physically and mentally.  And, the more I do, the easier it becomes, which in turns means I might up the amount I do regularly.

And for now at least, while we enjoy some relatively bright, long days, I’m going to take advantage and turn my little commute into a little conditioning.

Max and his Magic Daps

Max and his Magic Daps

When I was at school (late 80s-early 90s) there weren’t many people with my name. The only ones I could think of existed on TV and they were either in cartoons or were dogs. I mention this because a) I thought about it and got all nostalgic and b) the title of today’s blog is reminiscent of an old kid’s show title (who can remember Jamie and the Magic Torch?)

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So then, the story of Max and his Magic Daps*.

There once was a young boy young man man called Max. Max loved football very much, but he really wasn’t very good. One day he met a wise man known simply as JK.  JK was the (self-appointed) leader of a group of mighty warriors called the Spartans. Named after their similarly chiseled, six-pack toting historical counterparts, the Sport Wales Spartans were a fearsome footballing bunch who terrorised the Gol Centre‘s five-a-side work league every Monday night, crushing all teams that stood in their path (and by all I mean a few). Despite Max playing the beautiful game like a blindfolded Bambi on ice, he was invited to join the team.

The line up of the mighty Spartans team included many legends.  Firstly, Twohey, a goalkeeper likened to a cat, due mainly to his lightning reflexes and partly his habit of occasionally coughing up hairballs.  Then there was Simon. A man of unbending self-belief. A belief that the ball should do all the work.  He may not have run around like Speedy Gonzales , but he didn’t need to.  The ball was always where he wanted it – on his foot or in the goal.

Next up was Ski.  His name was a mystery, but some say it was due to his ability to glide past defences as if he were a world champion skier and the opponents flagpoles stuck helplessly in the snow.  And then we come to Ben.  An enigma.  A force of nature.  The kind of player who covers more ground than a carpet fitter, but still has finesse in abundance.

Next is Tom.  Those who wonder what Fergie’s infamous halftime hairdryer was like need only play on the same team as Tom.  Commitment is a word too weak to describe the Midlander’s passion, and that passion was often felt bellowing in your face when your desire was brought into question.  And last there was JK.  The man who took young Max and brought him into the Spartan family.  JK’s feet were something to behold. With the speed of Michael Flatley and the grace of Ginger Rogers, they bemused and confused the opposition into surrender.

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This group of men would take to the plastic crumb coated pitches on a Monday night and weave their soccer magic.  Goals would go flying in. Sometimes actually into the opponents’ goal. And everyone would chip in with goals. Everyone would tot up their tallies after each bruising victory.  All but Max that is.  Max’s headless chicken routine, while enthusiastic, only served to contribute fitfully and rarely towards the goal tally.

So, after another disappointing night in front of goal, Max’s wife Clare suggested that some actual football boots, rather than tattered trainers, might help.  Following a search that took the pair through the myriad malls and markets of old Cardiff town, some glittering golden boots were spied in a shop window.  Handing over the last shilling from their savings, the boots were bought and carried gleefully home.

The next match day arrived and Max pulled on his new boots. As he warmed up and took some practice shots, confidence flowed through him. His usual wayward marksmanship was seemingly much improved and his turning circle had gone from oil tanker to rally car. And then in the game itself, the unthinkable happened – Max scored a goal. He openly wept after that game, such was his joy.

And that wasn’t the end. Max went on to score TWO in the next game, taking the season’s tally to three. Wow. The crowds cheered raucously, and his teammates carried him from the pitch.

I know what you’re thinking. Magic Daps. Really? Well it’s true. In a way. You probably didn’t realise, but the Max in this story is me! And the magic was simply confidence. The new boots made me believe I could do more. I am never going to be a world beater, but it’s true that, with a good team around you and a little bit of self-belief, anyone can do more than they thought possible.

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*For the unaware among you, ‘daps’ is what some call trainers round these parts.

 

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