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.
Football was exciting in the 1990s – the Premier League was taking off, you could watch Serie A on TV and the Champions League was bringing the glamour of Juventus and Real Madrid into our living rooms – but watching Wales felt like a shameful secret, like going home to act out elaborate historical role plays with your parents while your mates were drinking cider and chatting up girls in the park.
It tied in with a general feeling of naffness about Wales in general, reinforced by the fact that wherever you go in the world, so few people have an idea about where you’re from. You wouldn’t arrive in a foreign city and expect to find a Welsh theme pub. We have no bagpipes, no kilts, no Loch Ness Monsters. Many of Wales’s cultural indicators only serve to emphasise what a strange little country we are. Our aversion to wearing coats in cold weather. Our enthusiasm for group singing. Our inexplicable attachment to bootcut jeans.
When people do know something about Wales, it’s often a Wales that bears little resemblance to the country you grew up in – a Wales where everyone talks like a Gavin & Stacey character and the world stops whenever the Welsh rugby team are playing. Telling people you’re from Wales can sometimes elicit a reaction that lingers somewhere between disappointment and sympathy, akin to discovering that someone you previously quite liked watches Top Gear or wears T-shirts with swear words on.
Football can be a silly and inconsequential thing, but for small countries who reach major tournaments – Wales, Iceland, Costa Rica, Slovenia – it represents nothing less than an opportunity to tell the world who you are. The Wales fans who have lived through the myriad disappointments of the last 60 years – Joe Jordan’s handball, Paul Bodin’s penalty, Bobby Gould – had only one wish, which was to see the team qualify for a major tournament. Just one would have done. But to see them in the semi-finals at a European Championship is wonderful beyond belief and to actually be in France for it, surrounded by hoarse, misty-eyed, incredulous Wales fans – the same members of that embarrassing, secretive club you all used to keep quiet about – feels like the greatest luck in the world.
Against all expectation, Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Hal Robson-Kanu are playing football from the gods and capturing hearts all over Europe. Against all expectation, that forlorn gathering of you and your socially inept mates has become the biggest party in town and all the cool kids are knocking on the door and politely asking if they can come in.
And beneath it all runs the thought that some day soon you’ll find yourself talking to a stranger in some far-flung foreign city and when you mention Wales, he’ll look at you and say: “Oh, cool. Great football team.”