In 2012, I attended the Wales vs. Scotland World Cup qualifier in Cardiff. Both Wales and Scotland were towards the bottom of the group and not expected to advance, but because they were both towards the bottom points taken by either could boost a surprise run towards Brazil. As such, it was a competitive match with both teams needing to win the match. I have many memories from that night: the pouring rain, seeing one of my favorite club players in action, Gareth Bale’s timely dive/foul. What struck me almost immediately though were the fans; even though they had plenty of verbal ammunition to hurl at each other and chants that would fit perfectly for the match, the game started with both Scotland and Wales supporters joining together and chanting, “stand up if you hate England.”
I share this story to set the stage for the passions that will be flowing through the stands and on the field when Wales and England clash in their pivotal Euros group stage match. Even though “England” were not on the field that night (they were thumping San Marino at Wembley miles away) the idea of England was enough to unite opposing supporters’ groups in a World Cup qualifier. It’s not necessary to go through the geopolitical history of Wales and England but, today, the Wales national team may be better than its English neighbors for the first time ever. For a nation rediscovering its language and history, the prospect of defeating England in a major soccer tournament is undoubtedly exciting.
In other words, this will not be a repeat of Ireland and Sweden fans singing Abba during the match.
If the rivalry between the fans were not enough to ratchet up the pressure on the players, the group standings will. After taking three points against Slovakia, Wales is in control of their destiny in advancing to the knock-out stage. Defeat England or even take a point, and they worry about who their next opponent is after Russia. For England, the opposite is true. A questionable performance against Russia which saw they snatch a draw from the jaws of victory means there is little room for error against Wales – a loss could well doom them to elimination even in the expanded field. One team on the pitch is playing with the pressure of expectations, the other playing with the failure to meet expectations so far. Chris Coleman this week rightly pointed out that the pressure is on England.
There is, however, a curve ball to what should be a match where the passion in the stands should outpace the passion on the field. The (alleged) attacks by the Russian ultras against English fans have led to a cooling between the Wales and England fans onsite in France. In interviews on the BBC, Wales fans in Lille ahead of the match aid they have “united” with their English brethren in the face of attacks by Russian ultras, with fans from both nations chanting together in the streets. The “enemy of my enemy is my friend” mantra could cool some of the passion in the stands during the match and reduce some of the cheers to playful taunts rather than mean-spirited barbs. Yet as the game goes on and the stakes rise, inevitably that veneer of common good will fall away.
The days of Phil Bennett before a Wales rugby match saying, “they’ve taken our coal, our water, our steel… what have they given us? Absolutely nothing” are gone. In soccer, a Wales golden generation are ascendant and England are trying to see what they have in their current crop. Yet even though current events may have cooled the passions against the two “brothers”, there is no doubt that under every challenge, every foul, there will be a reaction built up by events both present and past. Wales v. England is the type of match that is a must-see and, regardless of what plays out on the field, the stands will be a source of entertainment.
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