When I was six years old, I wanted to be English. It was 1990. England reached the World Cup semi-finals, everyone fell in love with Paul Gascoigne and it felt completely natural to align yourself with Bobby Robson’s valiant but vulnerable team.
I didn’t know that Wales, the nation of my birth, had failed to qualify for the tournament, finishing below West Germany, the Netherlands and Finland in UEFA qualifying Group 4, but following months of careful prompting by my quietly despairing father, I came to realise that England was not my country. When Wales agonisingly missed out on a place at the 1994 World Cup, after a 2-1 loss to Romania in November 1993, I stretched my Wales shirt over my pillow and cried myself to sleep.
To be Welsh and a football fan in the 1990s and 2000s was to live a life of constant, quiet disappointment. Wales seemed trapped in a cycle of wretchedness, forever finding new and inventive ways of being stuffed by just about every team in Europe. They lost 7-1 to Holland, 6-4 to Turkey, 5-0 to Georgia. They played a friendly against Leyton Orient, and lost.
They wore strange, lurid away kits made by obscure brands like Lotto and Kappa that looked like they’d been fished out of a JJB Sports bargain bin. Even a player as demonstrably great as Ryan Giggs seemed diminished by association with Wales – when he could be bothered turning up – traipsing across the continent looking permanently sad and confused, a shy computer programmer obliged to go on a Magaluf stag weekend with a rowdy group of men he doesn’t know.
Cristiano Ronaldo wept with sadness and joy as substitute Eder’s extra-time goal saw Portugal beat hosts France 1-0 in Sunday’s Euro 2016 final to win their first major tournament.
My AFP report on Portugal’s Euro 2016 final victory over France can be found here.
Related link: What now for France’s ‘Generation Griezmann’?
Paul Pogba went into the tournament as the heir apparent to Michel Platini and Zinedine Zidane, but L’Equipe newspaper dubbed the team the “Griezmann Generation” following the defeat of Germany. Griezmann is the first player to score six goals at a Euro since Platini, who netted nine times when France triumphed as hosts of the 1984 tournament. Ronaldo’s goal against Wales saw him equal Platini’s record of nine goals at Euro finals, but whereas it took the Frenchman one tournament to set his mark, it has taken the Portugal captain four to equal it.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Antoine Griezmann – the preening superstar and baby-faced poster boy – come face-to-face in Sunday’s Euro 2016 final, with both players capable of deciding the match. You can read my piece on their showdown here.
As Gareth Bale and his Wales team-mates bade farewell to Euro 2016, a commonly expressed hope was that their achievements in France would represent a beginning and not an end. Having waited 58 years to play at a major tournament, Wales made up for lost time in style, topping their group above England and sinking Belgium in the quarter-finals before falling to Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal. Along the way their songful, good-natured fans won admirers across the continent, leaving the players determined to make sure that they will not have another six decades to wait for their next overseas adventure. “We’ve had a taste of it now and we look forward to the future,” said Real Madrid forward Bale, who set the tone for Wales’s stunning exploits with three goals in the group phase.
As the sun sets on Wales’s unforgettable journey at Euro 2016, some thoughts on what the future holds for their history-making manager and players.
The sleepy Brittany resort town, which has a population of around 10,000, has played host to Chris Coleman’s squad for a month and the mutual affection between players and locals has been clear to see. The players have been taking walks on the beach, playing football with local youngsters and posing for selfies, while Dinard’s shopkeepers and bar owners have festooned the town with Wales flags and window displays. “The Welsh players are very approachable and close to their fans,” says Didier Dré, who runs a shop selling toys, postcards and beach furniture just around the corner from Dinard’s Plage de l’Écluse. “We’ve seen very famous players like Gareth Bale taking selfies with supporters. They’re a very relaxed, very cool team. I think that’s their strength.”
A piece on how the picturesque town of Dinard has fallen under the spell of Gareth Bale and his Wales team-mates during Euro 2016. You can read it here.
Underpinning the camaraderie is a formidable team spirit that reflects the fact many of Coleman’s players have been representing Wales for years. Bale, Gunter, Taylor and Aaron Ramsey were playing for the Wales Under-17 team as far back as 2006. The core of the current side came together during the latter years of former manager John Toshack’s tenure between 2004 and 2010. It has helped to foster the familiarity of a club side, both on the pitch — where Coleman has been honing the team’s tactical systems for two years — and off.
Dancing, table tennis and ice creams on the beach – here’s my piece on how Wales laughed their way to the Euro 2016 quarter-finals.
Glenn has announced that his organisation will now carry out a “definitive review” of what happened at Euro 2016 and “canvas opinion across the game” before announcing a permanent successor to Hodgson. Adding to the sense of incomprehension is the fact that England’s youth-level teams do not seem as prone to collapse as the senior side, as shown by the Under-20 team’s success at this year’s Toulon Tournament. England have taken steps to address psychological shortcomings by using Steve Peters, a renowned psychiatrist who has previously worked with Liverpool, British Cycling and UK Athletics. Peters was available for England’s players to consult throughout the Euro in France, but Hodgson’s analysis of the team’s failings suggested that mental factors had played a part. “We know that at tournament level, mentality is a vital factor,” he said Tuesday. “We’ve tried hard in our preparation to deal with that, but once again the result wasn’t there, so therefore we’ll be accused of failing.”
Another major tournament calamity for England, another round of soul-searching. Here’s my piece on the psychological factors underpinning England’s Euro 2016 exit.
Related link: Hodgson pays price for sorry England mess
It has been said that international duty represents an escape for Bale, who has been under constant scrutiny at Real Madrid since his world-record transfer from Tottenham Hotspur in 2013. The same could also be said of Ramsey. Approaching his ninth season at Arsenal, he divides opinion among the club’s support, with some lauding his talent and work rate while others bemoan his occasional tendency to over-elaborate. The 2013-14 season represented a watershed as Ramsey scored a career-best 16 goals, topped off by an extra-time winner against Hull City in the FA Cup final. But the two years since have seen him shunted around the team as Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger uses Ramsey’s industriousness to counter-balance the creative gifts of players like Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez.
A piece on Aaron Ramsey, who divides opinions among Arsenal fans but is thriving in an attacking role for Wales at Euro 2016. Read it here.
Northern Ireland goalkeeper Michael McGovern spent last season toiling for Scottish strugglers Hamilton Academical, but his brilliant display against Germany at Euro 2016 made him the toast of Paris. The 31-year-old pulled off save after save on Tuesday to frustrate the world champions and while Mario Gomez found a way past him in the 30th minute, it was only thanks to McGovern’s electric reflexes that the score remained 1-0. Captivating the 46,000-capacity Parc des Princes, and reaching the last 16 in the tournament, was a world away from his experiences with Hamilton, whose average home gate last season was 3,027, but Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neill said that his role in their relegation battle had been ideal preparation. “Playing for Hamilton Academical, he makes a lot of saves every week,” said O’Neill.
How Michael McGovern went from perennial bench-warmer at Celtic to Northern Ireland hero. My piece for AFP can be read here.
Aligned alongside Yohan Cabaye and Paul Pogba in a three-man midfield, Sissoko impressed as France recorded a 0-0 draw against the Swiss in Lille on Sunday that took them into the last 16 as Group A winners. As well as catching the eye with his driving runs, his inclusion allowed Pogba to excel in his preferred left-sided role and with Blaise Matuidi struggling for form, the 26-year-old Newcastle United midfielder has given coach Didier Deschamps food for thought. “Didier has a difficult choice to make,” former France midfielder Alain Boghossian told Monday’s edition of French sports daily L’Equipe. “With Pogba having rediscovered his place, Blaise Matuidi could pay the price, even though he’s shone brilliantly for the past two years.”
Could Moussa Sissoko play his way into France’s starting XI? Some thoughts on his performance against Switzerland here.