Around the world in 14 days – Wales’ Euro adventure comes to an end
Today we are all Chris Gunter’s chin and the hand placed firmly underneath it.
After two weeks clocking up the sort of extensive air miles that would tip Greta Thunberg over the edge, Wales exited Euro 2020 after being taught a footballing lesson by a Danish team on their own emotional journey.
Ultimately, it was meek surrender. A result no one realistically expected, save wildly optimistic Denmark fans.
It might not seem like it 24 hours later, but this young squad will be better for the experience and desperate to sample tournament football again. With a World Cup a year away they have an opportunity to compete on a global stage once more.
There should be no devastation in defeat. No backlash from a murderous media sharpening their knives in keen anticipation of this moment. Thank god our every move is not scrutinised under the microscope of hyper-criticism.
Getting out of the group was a monumental achievement in itself, given our aims and ambitions pre-tournament were set ever so slightly lower than our noisy neighbours.
On the plus side we progressed further than Scotland, and come Tuesday, when England inevitably descends into meltdown after defeat to Germany, we can say we progressed to the same stage as those on the other side of the Severn Crossing.
Okay, so my tongue is planted firmly in cheek, but we have plenty to be proud of.
We’ve reached the knockout stages of the Euros twice in a row. I still have to read that sentence several times to revel in its full glory.
Remember most of us who attended that momentous opening game at Euro 2016 against Slovakia in Bordeaux would have settled for seeing us score a goal.
Of course, that fairytale dash to the semi-finals has inevitably heightened expectations by some. It set a precedent that this time was never going to be emulated.
The unfairness of this fractured tournament will be much debated. The flagrant injustices of Euro 2020 are there for all to see.
Wales travelled 6,300 miles, between Cardiff, Baku, Rome and Amsterdam, amounting to a series of away games where the opposition had 98% of their own fans.
Yesterday, Denmark had travelled a cumulative 490 miles with four home games.
It is futile, however, to labour this moot point. I would much rather look at the bigger picture.
As a long in the tooth, battle hardened Wales football fan, who pre-2016 had only known heartbreak and failure, I had dreamed of these moments my whole life.
Now, we have scaled previously unscalable heights. And I, for one, am very much here for it.
Watching the game with friends who have experienced the multitudinous lows of Welsh football, of gut-wrenching major tournament qualification near misses, one mate piped up: “Let’s be honest, we could only have dreamed of of being beaten 4-0 in the knockout stages of a major international tournament when we spent decades not qualifying for them.”
He had a point.
When I’d reached home, my wife who is an Olympic-level expert in consoling me after Wales games reminded me of one moment in 2003, when she had come to pick me up after the second leg playoff game against Russia at the Millennium Stadium.
We’d lost 1-0 and yet again failed at the final hurdle. I was desolate. I remember I broke down in tears in the passenger seat and said, ‘well that’s it, we will never qualify for anything in my lifetime’. I was convinced that was our lot and nothing would ever change.
Today we need perspective and the realisation that what we are witnessing is something that has never happened in the 145 year history of the Wales national side.
This is a golden generation for any Wales fan.
Remember, it was almost 10 years ago – August 2011, when Wales were ranked 117th in the world. Frankly, I’m still giddy with the lofty heights we’ve scaled.
The last decade has witnessed an astonishing reinvention of Welsh football – the seismic effect of which is still being felt.
From the building of The Red Wall, the quality of the match day experience since moving to a permanent home at the Cardiff City Stadium, the perfecting of the anthem, the assimilation of language and culture that has given us an identity to be proud of, to those major tournament qualifications and a crop of talented youngsters coming through, we have plenty to be excited and thankful for.
Yes, yesterday was hugely disappointing, nobody would argue otherwise, but now we win as a family and we lose as a family. That’s what strongly binds us together.
The closeness of the players to the fans is something to be cherished. They are us and we are them.
Our strength is our togetherness. And it will take more than this setback to dismantle the Red Wall.
There is no shame and disgrace in the exit from Euro 2020, only pride at what has been achieved.
Remember supporting Wales is for life not just for tournaments.
For the future, there are many questions left to answer.
Who will manage the team in the long term and whether the constant ruminating and rumourmongering about Gareth Bale’s future will find an answer.
But now is not the time for those questions. (Try as some BBC reporters might)
In the immortal words of Dr Seuss, ‘don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.’
Chin up then. We will go again.
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