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I have lots of fridge magnets commemorating Euro 2016, which renew my vigour as I replace my son’s Petit Filous because he’s thrown the first one I got him against the wall. “You have lived your dream,” I think, staring at Ashley Williams acknowledging the Welsh fans in Lille, “and no one comes round because of Covid anyway, so why does it matter that we have historic yoghurt splashes on the ceiling?”
I had fallen in love with the current group of Welsh players long before the tournament began, but they are constantly creating more fridge magnet moments. Aaron Ramsey’s Italian adventure in Turin meant I’d forgotten he sticks his tongue out at moments of high excitement, if you’ve ever wondered what a gifted international footballer crossed with a picture of a Westie on a tin of shortbread would look like.
Joe Rodon has been colossal in the heart of our defence, a throwback centre-half in a TikTok age, 23 years old but, as the pundits like to say, “a man who loves to defend”. Six clearances against Italy, two blocked shots, two interceptions. His concentration never dips, but growing up in Llangyfelach means he sweats like an app developer playing Tuesday night Powerleague when he’s representing his country in sweltering Baku or Rome.
In the future I’m sure there’ll be digital fridge magnets, replaying the same thing over and over as we get space milk for our downloadable Alpen. For my first digital fridge magnet I’d like the clip of Rodon that went viral, where he indignantly responds to some overzealous refereeing during the Turkey game by pleading “WOSSS ’E ON ABOUT?” to his teammates, in a Swansea accent so thick it could raise Dylan Thomas from the dead.
Gareth Bale has provided his fair share of fridge magnet moments over the years, but from this tournament I’d like his apology for missing the penalty against Turkey during our second match of the group stages. This team have made a habit of performing their post-match huddles on the pitch, manna from heaven for supporters such as me who love to pore over the FAW social media feed for evidence of the enviable team spirit this side seems to have created.
When captured by the cameras most team huddles tend to be of the “THIS DOES NOT FUCKING SLIP NOW. THIS DOES NOT FUCKING SLIP NOW … WE GO AGAIN” variety, but Bale gathered his players, who linked arms like a boyband about to find out if they were going through to judges’ houses, and with comic timing that would make Will Ferrell envious, looked up, paused, raised his hands, and said “… sorry” with a raised eyebrow worthy of Bill Murray.
I must have watched that clip 50 times. “Wow,” I always think to myself. “International footballers. With all the pressure that entails. And they’re actually having a laugh.”
My ambition for this tournament was for Wales to make the knockout stages and it’s mission accomplished. Group A was the only group withfour teams in the top 30 of the Fifa world rankings, creating a potentially worrying logjam of Italy and A Good Team Who Would Have To Go Home Early.
The achievement of reaching the last 16 must not be played down. Three games in energy-sapping heat, without any of the home advantage enjoyed by other nations, and Covid restrictions reducing our enthusiastic support to a few hundred. How I wish they’d been roared on by the thousands who initially had tickets for Baku and Rome, but if the qualification campaign and the last Nations League has shown us anything, this team are capable of grinding out results in difficult conditions. Of finding a way.
The evidence for this is substantial – Ramsey’s imperious performance and two goals against Hungary to ensure qualification in November 2019, in the of kind of do-or-die must-win shootout that has proven too difficult for good Welsh teams in the past. Neco Williams’s injury-time winner against Bulgaria in Cardiff, Jonny Williams’s delightful 85th-minute finish in Sofia against the same opponents, Kieffer Moore’s 80th minute winner against Finland, Dan James in the 82nd minute during the recent World Cup qualifier against the Czech Republic.
It’s a nailbiting way to watch football and I’d prefer us to steamroller teams such as the Real Madrid of Di Stefano and Puskas, but these are the cards we have been dealt as Wales fans. We tend not to concede many and we won’t break any goalscoring records, but you cannot write this team off.
And so to Saturday. At the time of writing there will be no Welsh fans in the ground unless they are expats and living in the Netherlands and as you can imagine Radio Wales has found both those people and they are now enjoying a media spotlight so intense it would make Nigel Farage blush.
Denmark will have 4,000 fans, as long as their trip to Amsterdam is restricted to “less than 12 hours”, which isn’t really what going away to support your country is about. Amsterdam, in the last 16 of the European Championship! They should be making new friends, experiencing new cultures, skinning up on the bonnet of a police car. Not being flown in like a Uefa-sanctioned version of Con Air.
Denmark were impressive against Russia on Monday and they will be motivated by forces more profound than football, but I’m just hoping for a repeat of our 2-1 win in Copenhagen in 1998. The team were limping towards the end of the Bobby Gould era, where enthusiasm was rare and away wins were rarer. As our stunned players threw their arms around a young Craig Bellamy in celebration of his late winner, Dean Saunders muttered: “You do realise you’ve saved this guy’s job.”
We have progressed in almost unimaginable ways since that night. But I’d love the same result.