First, let me begin this article by saying that I am not from Wales; unlike my colleague Christopher Harris at World Soccer Talk I did not come from the country or have immediate family grow up there. There are branches of my family tree from Wales but the majority of my heritage is from Italy, Scotland, or even England. So why was I pumping my fist and retrying to keep down the noise yesterday while watching Wales 3-1 victory over Belgium?
One major reason is I have had the privilege of watching this team in its infancy, as it tried to qualify for the 2014 World Cup. If you’ve read my articles in the past, you’d know that I attended a Wales v. Scotland qualifier rather unexpectedly and fell in love with the he team and country. In addition, one of my favorite professionals (Aaron Ramsey) represents Wales and, in this tournament is doing quite well. In 2012 when I saw him play he had just been stripped of a temporary and ill-decided captaincy, and his long term prospects while promising were unclear.
Yet even if I did not have a personal bias towards Wales, their story when you dig into it is remarkable. In fact, you can argue their journey as a soccer team is more incredible than Iceland, who has gotten so much press at these Euros.
Let’s start with the manager, or more accurately, his predecessor. Gary Speed was a near legend for Leeds United who was much admired during his playing days (and is still Wales’ most capped outfield player), but when he took over as Wales manager he was still early in his managerial career. Despite this, he was admired by now Wales fixtures like Ashley Williams and Joe Allen and under his 11 month tutelage the team was seen as on the rise. However, on November 27, 2011 he was found dead in his home of an apparent suicide. The death rocked the entire football world but especially the Wales football community, where he was again greatly admired as a player and increasingly as a manager.
Into the void stepped Chris Coleman, another former Wales international whose playing career ended prematurely thanks to a car crash. His managerial career had been mixed, but he was tasked with continuing to build the FA’s project. His start was poor, losing his first five matches (I witnessed his first victory) and coming close to being relieved of duty. However, after failing to qualify for the 2014 World Cup, Wales began the turnaround that has led them to where they are today.
Talk of Wales starts with Gareth Bale, he of the world’s largest transfer fee and the expectations of a nation. Unlike Ronaldo, Bale has the perception of being a team player, someone who does not let his obscene talent get in the way of working with and rallying his teammates. But rather than being the superstar and role players, Wales’ roster is dotted with talented individuals who play for quality clubs in different leagues around Europe, but the overall depth isn’t like a Germany or Italy. Rather, it relies on the star quality of Bale and hard-working but talented role-players to win matches.
The team’s style is default defensive, but to leave it at that is to do its players a disservice. The strong defensive back three allows its wing players and Aaron Ramsey in the middle to roam forward and create scoring changes for Bale, Hal Robson-Kanu, and others. While a causal fan may miss the pretty skill of a Spain at its peak, they have to be impressed by the rigid organization and smart play of players who have grown together as a national team and are now finding success together.
Whether it’s staying on the pitch long after the final whistle to salute fans, or the brutal honesty in wanting England to lose, this team has personality in a tournament that at times borders on vanilla. As someone who was there at the beginning of the revolution, it is a joy to see Wales succeed, but I’d invite casual unaffiliated fans to take a look at this team and get behind its improbable run. Wales is the rare team that makes you feel good just by supporting them.