And after the celebrations…the creeping realisation that perhaps there was a good reason we didn’t get invited to the football party for these 58 long years, a reason beyond mere footballing matters or bad luck. Perhaps those decades of failure were actually what we subconsciously desired – simply because losing beats winning.
Oh yes; winning is demanding, winning raises expectations, winning is hard work, winning means getting noticed, winning draws attention, winning is vulgar, winning is over-rated, winning is embarrassing. As somebody who once, drowning helplessly in a Pembrokeshire rip-tide, preferred a silent, uncomplaining death to the silly fuss, big-headed assertion of self-worth and sheer indignity implicit in crying “HELP!!”, I have, quite literally, almost died of embarrassment. So I’m acutely aware of what now lies ahead for Wales: our can of worms is open for all of Europe to examine. Oh no!
It will soon be noticed that, of the 24 qualifiers for Euro 2016, Wales will be the only one without a single player from its domestic pyramid in its squad. The only other candidate for this dishonour is Northern Ireland, who amazingly topped their group to join Albania, Iceland and Wales as first-time Euro qualifiers (Bosnia & Herzegovina might yet be a 5th Euro newbie if they come through next month’s play-offs to decide the last four qualifiers), but we can be certain that the IFA will insist that head coach Michael O’Neill include at least one player from the NIFL in his final squad, if only as a token to warm the bench. This is what happened in the three World Cups NI has reached (1958: three players from Coleraine, Glenavon and Linfield; 1982: four players, two from Glentoran, one each from Coleraine and Linfield; 1986: two players, from NIFL giants Coleraine and Linfield again).
It will also be noticed that, although there are two Welsh players who play for a club based in Wales (Neil Taylor and Ashley Williams of Swansea City), that club is an English club. UEFA itself defines Swansea City as precisely that, and they proudly stand 87th out of the 456 clubs in the current UEFA rankings having earned 20.281 points for England, while Wales highest-ranked side are 252nd-placed The New Saints who have garnered 5.2 points for Wales. These points decide how many clubs are allowed to participate from each nation in the lucrative UEFA competitions and also the seeding of those clubs in the draws. The points are finite, so if Swansea have accrued 20 for England that is 20 less available for all the other nations, including Wales. Of the 54 European associations, England are at the moment ranked 3rd and Wales 51st because of results in UEFA’s club competitions, and this coefficient contributes towards the seeding of each nation in the draw for Euro 2016 in December. It’s one of the main reasons why Wales have already been placed in ‘Pot 4’ and are thus certain to be in a ‘Group of Death’ like no other we’ve ever experienced in France. That’s how it should be, because Wales’ current FIFA ranking of 8th out of 209 in the world is obviously a transient status liable to sudden change and not based on fundamental strength. If world ranking were the only factor Wales would be in Pot 1 with Germany, Belgium, Portugal and Spain and the Euro 2016 groups would be as ludicrous as the group Wales were in in the Rugby World Cup – and basing the draw on tentative, out-of-date snapshots of form is not a blunder the IRB will never make again. No, it’s perfectly correct that Wales is in Pot 4; what’s weird is the position of Ashley Williams, captain of both Wales and Swansea City. He will be a unique figure in the tournament, having played his socks off both to help Wales qualify and to help Wales land in the toughest group possible.
Then there’s the little matter of Gareth Bale. The coincidence of Wales qualifying for something for the first time in 58 years while simultaneously fielding the world’s most expensive footballer can hardly fail to be noticed – especially as Bale was responsible for seven goals and two ‘assists’ (hate that creeping Americanism – what’s wrong with ‘made’?) out of the paltry 11 scored in qualifying. ‘One Man Band’ doesn’t quite sum it up. ‘Bale + 10 A.N.Others’ is very unfair on the excellent Williams and Aaron Ramsey, but a bit more like it. The wafer-thin shallowness of the resources at Chris Coleman’s disposal will become common knowledge – and should Gareth get injured between now and next June…well, let’s not go there.
There is potential embarrassment too in another quarter: us Welsh fans. Please can we have the confidence not to be sub-Irish cliche Celts with daffodil instead of leprechaun hats, please can we avoid insecurely straining for lovableness by spending the tournament, say, fundraising for water-pumps in Lesotho, please can we show that we are able to handle our drink with French flair not British boorishness, and PLEASE can we not mention, yawn, England? Tell you what, given that I will be there even if I have to walk through the channel tunnel against the flow of human traffic and that I will have tickets for the Wales games even if I have to beg for centimes on the pavement outside the Moulin Rouge, Welsh fans in France should just surrender to my alpha-maleness and do as I tell them throughout each match. I will be easy to recognise: look for a snarling old bastard dressed as a giant leek being led away in handcuffs.
Do you begin to comprehend the snake-pit we are entering? Next summer Wales in its own right will have its highest profile since the invention of television – and therefore its highest profile of all time. At last all the hollow words about Wales’ hitherto non-existent international visibility will actually come true. Is it any wonder I’m worried?
Switching to positive mode, here’s what I’d like to see in the preparatory period ahead:
♦A 17 year-old goalscoring talent emerge from the Welsh Premier League and force himself into the currently striker-free squad – a bit like Pele did with Brazil in the 1958 world cup.
♦An experienced WPL player or two brought into the squad anyway. Aberystwyth Town’s goal-happy midfielder Chris Venables immediately comes to mind. He has scored 113 goals in 323 league appearances, has played in Europe nine times for Llanelli and Aber, and has enough stamina, experience, composure on the ball and technique to do alright on the more measured international stage. At any rate, given the paucity of Welsh midfield back-up, he would be a useful guy to have in reserve should anything untoward happen to Bale or Ramsey.
♦ A commitment from the FAW that the lion’s share of the vast, unprecedented windfall they are about to receive will be ploughed into Wales’ shockingly under-resourced pyramid.
We are entering unknown territory; anything can happen. You know what, there’s even a chance, if we mine the untapped veins of Welsh genius we know we possess, steer our own course and come to relish the spotlight…there’s even a slim chance this might be fun!