After Brexit, Wales’ footballers could be essential ambassadors to Europe
When Ian Rush returned to Liverpool in the summer of 1987 from his single season at Juventus he was famously misreported as saying: “I couldn’t settle in Italy. It was like living in a foreign country.”
The quote was actually the product of a mischievous teammate, but it does lay bare the off-field challenges that partly explain why Welsh stars like Rush didn’t achieve their full potential on the continent and why many more never left the relative familiarity of England.
At Juventus, he had just one English-speaking teammate, no interpreter and found out there “wasn’t much to do” in industrial Turin at the time. Although adapting to different tactical cultures was just as big a challenge, with Rush explaining how the “negative approach didn’t play to my strengths.”
Rush’s seven league goals actually make him one of our more successful exports. The handful of other continental cameos by Welsh internationals range in success from Mark Hughes’ six goals in a season at Bayern Munich to just one appearance for Craig Davies at Hellas Verona.
There was, until recently, one giant exception: In his first season at Juventus (1957-58), John Charles was Italy’s top scorer as he fired the bionceneri to their first league title for six years with 28 goals and his performances over five seasons in Turin saw him voted the club’s best ever foreign player.
His ability to adapt in Italy is even more impressive considering that when Charles was asked to go for a trial at Leeds United, his mother had protested: “John can’t go up to Leeds, he hasn’t got his passport.”
But Welsh football’s relationship with the continent is being redefined, with its leagues now arguably just as important in the development of our top players as the Premier League.
Four Welsh men’s internationals – Gareth Bale, James Lawrence, Matt Smith and Rabbi Matondo – played 75 times in the Spanish, Belgian, Dutch and German leagues respectively last season.
That would appear to be a new record for Welsh appearances in the continent’s top leagues over a season, ahead of 47 for Rush at Juventus and Hughes at Bayern Munich in 1987/88.
Despite Bale’s difficulties in Spain, current members of the men’s national team completed almost as much game time on the continent as they did in the Premier League last season.
Bale, Lawrence, Smith, and Matondo played 8,745 league minutes between them for Real Madrid, Anderlecht, FC Twente and FC Schalke respectively.
That compared to 8,871 minutes for six members of Ryan Giggs’s set-up in the Premier League: Aaron Ramsey (Arsenal), Ben Davies (Tottenham), Sam Vokes (Burnley), David Brooks (Bournemouth), Chris Mepham (Bournemouth) and Wayne Hennessey (Crystal Palace).
And there could be more Welsh footballers playing on the continent at one time than ever before in the coming season.
Smith has moved to QPR but Ramsey will be continuing the Welsh tradition at Juventus, while Ethan Ampadu has followed Matondo to the Bundesliga where young players are offered more game time.
Despite never having made the move himself, Giggs recognises it’s a positive trend for the nation team.
“I think it is good that we have so many players now who are playing abroad,” he told the BBC earlier this year. “Different experiences across Europe – it’s good for their education.”
And at a moment when Wales’ formal political ties with Europe are due to be weakened by Brexit, our footballers’ roles as permanent representatives on the continent could also be more significant.
Italy’s Gazzetta dello Sport pointed out to readers that it’s a “un distinguo fondamentale” that Ramsey is Welsh rather than English.
The Welsh Government recently used a GIF of Gareth Bale to promote a consultation on their new international outreach strategy on social media.
And FC Schalke’s media team have been sharing daily Welsh words through their official US Twitter account.
Despite Bale’s future at Madrid being in the balance, he has already equalled the amount of time John Charles spent on the continent across two spells in Italy and won four Champions Leagues along the way.
That’s something he would not have achieved had he stayed in the Premier League and the must-win attitude demanded at Real Madrid no doubt helped Bale haul Wales to our first tournament since 1958, when John Charles of Juventus did the same.
Similarly, Jess Fishlock, who led Wales women to within one match of a place at this summer’s World Cup had been part of a Champions League-winning team in Frankfurt in 2015.
In May, she became the fifth Welsh footballer to play in and win a Champions League final while on loan at Lyon. Speaking before the final, Fishlock said the Women’s Premier League, where most of the Welsh national team play, is still behind the standards being set in its continental counterparts.
“What England really need is their teams being regularly in the semi-finals and the final [of the Champions League],” she said. “Until we see that, the German league and some of the teams in the French league are going to be the more appealing teams to the better players.”
There will also be a new Welsh coach on the continent this season in Craig Bellamy, who has taken over Anderlecht under-21s as part of Vincent Kompany’s coaching team after missing out on the Wales national team job last year.
Experience on the continent is likely to help a future application for the role, as it did in the case of Chris Coleman, who managed at Real Sociedad and Larissa, and John Toshack, who managed eight clubs across two decades in Spain, Italy, France, Portugal and Turkey.
Toshack puts his “wanderlust” down to listening to John Charles speak about his time in Italy during their brief period as teammates at Ninian Park in the mid-1960s.
Toshack won La Liga with Real Madrid in 1990, but his most important experience came during his first of three spells at Real Sociedad. At the time, the club only fielded Basque players, a rule their neighbours Athletic Bilbao still adhere to.
The Welshman inherited an ageing team and the Basque “cantera” system meant his only option was to fast track replacements through the club’s youth system.
In his recent autobiography, Toshack remembered: “It was coaching in its purest form and very much a blueprint for what I did later with Wales at international level.”
A 16-year-old Gareth Bale and 17-year-old Aaron Ramsey were among dozens of youngsters given debuts by Toshack during his six years in charge of Wales.
Now they are leading a new generation of Welsh footballers who feel a lot more at home on the continent.