Euro 2020: In darkness, Wales still dream of reliving golden 2016


Wales celebrate their Euro 2016 quarter-final win over Belgium

When reality no longer seems real and the future feels uncertain, we turn to our past, nostalgia at its strongest. When something is gone, all we have is its memory.

The anxiety of recent months has left us in darkness, displaced by the absence of all that makes our lives seem normal, our social constructs and daily routines.

Sport does not matter at a time like this and yet, at the same time, it does.

Why? Because it gives us purpose, a sense of belonging, a sense of meaning – it makes us feel alive. We live for the shared experiences, from the pre-match pint and the walk to the ground, to the chaos of celebrating a goal, hugging a stranger and falling over your seat.

Sport inspires as much pain as it does joy, perhaps more, but it always stirs emotions. It brings structure to our lives, the sporting calendar anchors us, and at the same time it can also offer us an escape.

It is why football’s return – even in its sterile new guise – feels significant.

On Saturday, Wales were meant to be playing their first match at Euro 2020, but this warped reality means the competition has been postponed a year.

With such a void to fill, minds will naturally drift back to the past and the golden summer of 2016, Wales’ last time and, for many, their first time at a major tournament.

Wales’ only other appearance came in the 1958 World Cup, but these were different times. Although that Welsh side contained greats such as John Charles and Ivor Allchurch, a World Cup then did not grip the national consciousness like a championship can today.

Such was the ambivalence back home, when players returned to Wales from Sweden they were asked if they had been on holiday. Their journey to the quarter-finals was not a shared nationwide experience like the odyssey to the Euro 2016 semi-finals.

From 1958, Wales’ football story became one of anguish: Joe Jordan’s handball in 1977, Paul Bodin’s penalty miss in 1993 and the play-off loss to Russia 10 years later. History’s pain bound a footballing nation together, fuel for hopes – however fanciful they may have seemed after losses to Georgia and Moldova – that they would one day emulate the class of 1958.

The longer the wait went on, the more fantastical those aspirations seemed. But to be a supporter is to dream. To follow your team is to endure countless false dawns and disappointments, coming back for more because the faint hope still flickers that those dreams will become reality. And sometimes they do.

Wales’ moment came on 11 June 2016, their opening Euro 2016 fixture against Slovakia. To bask in the Bordeaux sunshine, to hear 24,000 from Wales pour their souls into the anthem, to watch their team play in an actual European Championship – and to watch them win? That was paradise.

This was an impossible reality, the moment many thought would never come. The thousands who travelled to France lived a dreamlike existence, and it lasted longer than they could have imagined.

There was the beautiful dismantling of Russia, Wales’ attacking play a symphony set to the backdrop of a riot of red shirts in the stands, rippling under the purple and pink of the Toulouse night sky.

And then there was Lille, the pouring rain and disbelieving eyes as Wales scaled stratospheric new heights with their quarter-final win over Belgium. Even now, the divine inspiration of Hal Robson-Kanu – the swivel that turned Welsh football on its head – is still dumbfounding.

Wales players and staff salute their fans, ‘The Red Wall’, after their Euro 2016 semi-final loss to Portugal

These are the moments. Gareth Bale’s free-kick against Slovakia, Aaron Ramsey’s opening goal against Russia, Sam Vokes rising to head in the third against Belgium. We slow them down in our minds, right down, until they are colour and sound and feeling.

We try to unpick and distinguish them, making sense of this assault on the senses. The memories come flooding back when we re-watch the games, a shared experience all over again as we relive those moments, bring them back to life and cling to them.

Before Euro 2016, it was a dream that sustained Welsh fans, the not entirely unwavering belief that they would one day see their team play on this grand stage.

Now that aspiration has been realised, the inspiration is the chance to replicate the experience, or at least something like it. That is what Euro 2020 was meant to be, though that will have to wait until next summer.

It remains unclear what life will look like in a year; our existential angst is rooted in not knowing if things will ever be the same again.

For Wales fans, perhaps there is a feeling deep down that nothing will be quite like 2016 again. But that is not to say there is no hope.

Just as shops and restaurants reopening are harbingers of life’s resumption, football’s return is a cause for optimism.

The Euros may have been lost for this summer but not forever. Wales’ chance to relive those precious memories – and create new ones – will come.



BBC