Wales in Euro 2016: 'moments of happiness matter'

On the eve of Wales' first match in Euro 2016, Dr Martin Johnes, a history lecturer at Swansea University reflects on the tournament's significance, argues Welsh football can attract a bigger audience than rugby and will create a new collective Welsh memory.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption 80s Wales football team

I don't remember my first Wales match. The Welsh team of my youth may have had Mark Hughes, Ian Rush, and Neville Southall but they never seemed that important to me or anyone around me.

In the rural Pembrokeshire setting I grew up in, it was international rugby and first-division English football that people were interested in.

Even supporting Swansea City had a touch of the exotic about it.

Wales' repeated failures to qualify for a major tournament thus didn't hurt me that much. It was just what I expected.

Even when Paul Bodin missed the 1993 penalty that might have put us through to the World Cup, it somehow seemed inevitable.

It was shortly after this that I started regularly attending Wales games but I did so because by then I had moved to Cardiff and matches were on my doorstep.

'Sense of masochism'

I still never expected much and I was at least partly attracted by the sense of masochism that watching Bobby Gould's Wales sometimes offered.

Of course, it wasn't like that for everyone. Football supporters are not a homogenous group. I watched the 1993 match in a house in the shadow of the old national stadium. You could hear the crowd noise inside.

Image copyright Rex Features
Image caption Romania end Wales' 1994 World Cup dream

Afterwards, I saw people who looked like their world had fallen in.

For many of them, it was the latest chapter in a long history of near misses that cumulatively gave hardcore Welsh fans a sense of frustration, injustice and marginalization.

Not only did they repeatedly miss out on the tournaments that represented the pinnacle of the international game, they were also underappreciated in their own nation.

'Obsession' with the oval ball?

The Welsh media, they not unreasonably felt, was obsessed by the oval ball, and matches were overly concentrated in the capital.

Of course, for some this did not matter but Welsh international football support draws disproportionately on the north.

Similarly, many Swansea fans felt uncomfortable attending games in Cardiff, especially when some locals insisted on wearing Bluebirds shirts and even booing players with strong Swansea connections.

Image caption Mark Hughes

These feelings did dissipate somewhat in Mark Hughes' era as manager. Wales then briefly attracted gates of over 70,000 for qualifiers at the then Millennium Stadium.

But the failure to qualify for the 2004 Euros after a lacklustre performance in the play-offs against Russia killed that optimism.

Actively following Wales again became a minority pastime that was not really suited for those who thought that football was just about winning games.

FAW's achievement

One of the real achievements of the Football Association of Wales in the last few years has been to bring back the sense of optimism and togetherness.

Attendances have not just risen because of improved results.

Tickets for Euro 2016 home qualifiers were set at just £20 for adults and £5 for children.

Games had a sense of occasion to them that managed to appeal to both families and supporters seeking a more traditional atmosphere.

Neither 'Gogs' nor 'Jacks' seemed to mind visiting Cardiff City's stadium any more.

No Cardiff fan minded the Swansea skipper also being captain of Wales.

It is for the supporters who went to the qualifiers, or who have longer memories of campaigns that finished so close yet so far, that the Euros will mean the most.

Sticker albums and betting sites

For them, there is a determination to enjoy the tournament and everything that goes with it, whatever happens on the pitch.

For the serious fans, it's seeing Wales in a sticker album, the players on billboards and the team's chances listed in betting sites and in tournament previews that is half the fun.

Whereas many long-term supporters of Premier League clubs are jaded and cynical about modern elite football, Welsh fans are revelling in being part of it.

As a Swansea fan, there is a large part of me that preferred it when the Swans were rubbish and played in an old-fashioned ground. No Wales fan has that kind of nostalgia.

Euro 2016 to reach new Welsh fans?

But it's in how the Euros might touch the fans in Wales who have never been to a football match, whose main loyalties lie with Manchester United or Liverpool, or who don't consider themselves Welsh at all that the tournament's wider significance lies.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Gareth Bale during Wales v Belgium match

The qualifying campaign struggled to reach these groups and the wider Welsh nation because matches were only shown live on Sky.

Even the key home victory against Belgium was seen by just 330,000 viewers across the UK. With all Wales' games at Euro 2016 being shown on free terrestrial channels, the tournament will have both a greater reach and impact.

Free-to-air television takes sport beyond the hardcore supporters to casual and new fans; it unites nations in a way that nothing else can.

In 2013, 1.1.m in Wales saw their country play England at rugby on television. This suggests more than one in three people were watching the game.

Football, however, has the potential to go beyond this. It is a sport with a much higher profile than rugby.

Image copyright Rhydian Bowen Phillips

Although some companies have fallen foul of failing to distinguish between the home nations in their marketing campaigns, the Euros are everywhere in a way that rugby never is.

They are on our chocolate bars, crisp packets and beer cans; they are in our television adverts and supermarkets.

For the next month, the schedules of BBC1 and ITV will be organised around football. It will be difficult for anyone to ignore the competition.

As a global game, football is also, arguably, a more inclusive sport than rugby, and familiar to people of all backgrounds and nationalities.

For those who don't like sport, it is much easier to follow and understand than the technical, stop-start character of modern rugby.

Moreover, unlike rugby, football is not a game that is concentrated in the south.

Wales squad 'as diverse as the nation'

Through the last World Cup qualifying campaign, I sat next to an English guy who had moved to Cardiff and decided to support Wales.

Image copyright David Rawcliffe
Image caption The Wales team with James Dean Bradfield from the Manic Street Preachers

At the 2011 census, a third of the Welsh population did not record themselves as having a Welsh identity. That does not mean they do not feel they belong here, but sport can help enhance their connection with Wales.

After all, the current Welsh squad is as diverse as the nation it represents.

It ranges from a global superstar to those who could walk the streets of Cardiff without being recognised.

It contains players of white, black and Asian heritage. It has Welsh learners and first-language speakers. Nine of its 23 members were born in England.

'Moments of happiness matter'

It is easy to exaggerate the importance of major sporting events. The Euros will probably enhance Wales' global profile but that probably won't mean much in concrete terms.

A successful campaign for Wales is no more going to fix the economy or even unequivocally boost mass participation in sport than the 2012 Olympics did.

Image copyright Lewis Whyld/PA
Image caption The Queen opened the London Olympics in 2012 following a spectacular ceremony, featuring David Beckham, Bradley Wiggins and James Bond

Yet people enjoyed London 2012, even people who were not really into sport. There was a genuine sense of occasion and fun. Indeed, the two highest Welsh television audiences of the 21st Century are the 2012 opening and closing ceremonies.

In a world where so much is perceived to be going wrong, moments of happiness matter.

A new collective Welsh memory

For the long-term Welsh fans, the Euros will mean far more than that, no matter what.

But if Wales does do well, if the team gets close to the final, then the Euros will help bind and cheer up a nation.

The tournament will create a new collective Welsh memory and become part of the story that people tell of their lives. It will show why football can matter so much.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Gareth Bale and fellow Wales players celebrating qualifying for Euro 2016

More on this story