Group therapy

So, Wales will have to play a warmongering, imperialistic, corrupt, tyrannical, rogue state run for the benefit of a tiny elite of trillionaire oligarchs and plutocrats. And Russia are in Group B too! Isn’t it just typical: we wait for ages to step onto the international stage, and the first nation we come out of the hat with is England.  It’s rather like a fine-dining gourmet going to a Michelin-starred restaurant only to be served a family bucket of KFC wings. Or an elderly spinster, having spent 60 years saving it for Mr Right, losing her virginity to the repulsive, drooling lech next door. Actually, who needs to toil for clunky analogies when the situation is self-explanatory: Wales v England, for the 102nd bleeding time. What a let-down.

101 matches, 14 wins, 21 draws, 66 defeats. Hmm…well, at least that dreadful record means Wales’ percentage success rate is easy to work out (for the innumerate: 14%). That’s one win in every seven attempts, which somehow doesn’t sound as bad as saying we lose to the Sais sissies two times in every three. Whatever the stats suggest, it’s the worst possible draw for Wales; not because we can’t beat England (with Bale in the side we certainly can) but because the fixture is sure to prompt an unprecedented, European-wide, forensic examination of the excruciating England/Wales relationship – and it won’t stop at football. My toes are curling at the prospect already. We will be like the battered wife who, rather than admit to her humiliating subjugation, tries to explain away her black eyes and multiple fractures by saying she fell down the stairs. On the other hand, it might be healthy for us to face the chastening fact that everyone else evaluates us as pathetic wimps. It might be revelatory, purging, arousing and ultimately revolutionary…if all goes well.

As this will be our first ever meeting with England in a finals tournament, it will be by far the most important of all the matches played since the inaugural encounter in 1879. Point of marginal passing interest: that game (England 2 Wales 1, Kennington Oval) was refereed by an Englishman called Segar Bastard (1854-1921); hence the enduring terrace anthem The Referee’s a Bastard. Titter. Come to think of it, this ultimate Wales/England sporting showdown has another advantage: the media coverage will inevitably expose ‘Britain’ as a deceitfully euphemistic synonym for ‘England’, and for once the battalions of ‘British’ in Wales will be forced to stop running with the hare and chasing with the hound, get off their untenable fence and choose whose side they’re on: the Goodies or the Baddies.

The game will take place at the Stade Bollaert-Delelis in Lens, a real football town in the north, closer to Cardiff than Cardiff is to Carlisle – just a short hop across la Manche in fact. Home of Racing Club de Lens, French champions in 1998, it has a capacity of 38,000, 3,000 more than the total population of Lens itself. Even though Lens is an intriguing place, surrounded by the evocative scars of two world wars and with a similar coal mining history to Wales, I will not be going to the match. If I wanted to mingle with 20,000 drunk Englishmen I’d look through a jaundiced lens in St Mary Street on a Friday night.

Instead, I intend to be at Wales’ opening fixture against Slovakia at the 42,000 capacity Nouveaux Stade in Bordeaux on June 11th (my birthday!), and then base myself in the Pearl of Aquitaine for the rest of the tournament. What with beautiful Bordeaux being the global capital of the wine industry, having average June temperatures of 25°C, and being a UNESCO World Heritage Site with more historic buildings than anywhere else in France bar Paris, it’s a no-brainer. I’m trawling through Airbnb already. And it should be a hell of a game too if the previous two meetings between the countries (in Euro 2008 qualifying) are anything to go by: Slovakia won 5-1 in Cardiff and Wales won 5-2 in Trnava! In Bordeaux there’s no chance of being bored; oh, no chance.

The Russia match will be in the southern city of Toulouse, which not only has intimate rugby associations with Wales but also a direct connection to Welsh football via the aerospace industry. It is the European headquarters of Airbus, while Airbus UK Broughton, effectively the company team, are currently playing their 12th consecutive season in the Welsh Premier League. However, the Wales/Russia clash does not appeal. It will probably decide whether we stay in the competition for the knock-out stages or are eliminated and, given what happened the last time we played Russia (see, the match is over-loaded with too much fraught revenge baggage to be a comfortable experience. A jobbing writer trying to make puns out of all three of the host cities might add that if Wales are too loose we’re likely to lose.