Football is all about dreams. Whether you are a Real Madrid fan dreaming of an 11th European Cup or a supporter of a non-league side dreaming about making the 1st round of the FA Cup, everyone has that one ambition they’ve waited their whole lives to see become a reality. If we didn’t have dreams, it would be very hard to justify some of the things we do for the teams we love. As a personal example, I wrote a rough draft of this article while setting on a bench at Amsterdam airport at 3am. I’d flown back from Cyprus a few hours ago, and had six more to wait before my flight back home to Wales. In any other situation I would be utterly miserable, but instead my only emotion was excitement. Excitement, because my own personal dream might just be coming true.
You see, it’s not just clubs which have a dream. There’s the English dream of football coming home, and the Dutch desire to finally win a World Cup. Brazil dream of playing the game as beautifully as possible, while neighbours Argentina has a burning passion to end their long wait for a trophy. For some of us however, the dream is not as ambitious as actually winning a tournament. We just want to get there.
I was seven years old when my dad took me to my first ever Wales game, a World Cup Qualifier against San Marino. Dean Saunders and Mark Hughes both scored twice along with Andy Melville and John Robinson as my new heroes strolled to a 6 – 0 victory. Of course, being so new to football I had no idea that San Marino were utterly awful and assumed that life as a Wales supporter would always be this easy. A few months later I was allowed to stay up late as a special treat for our next game, as I excitedly waited for Wales to run away with another crushing victory. We lost 7 – 1.
Wales, I discovered, had not been to an international tournament since 1958. In our last match at the highest level we had been knocked out by a 17-year-old Pele. And so, disappointment followed. I saw Wales lose our first match at the Millennium Stadium 2 – 1 to Finland, and witnessed a 0 – 0 draw with Armenia so depressing that FIFA could have quite rightly abandoned the entire sport afterwards. So, Wales were pretty consistently terrible in the first five years I followed them, but I would soon discover their favourite trick – raising your hopes before crushing them in the most painful way possible.
Just as I had got used to Wales being a bit rubbish then suddenly…we weren’t anymore. We were good. Really good. We drew with Argentina and the Czech Republic in friendlies, before beating the mighty Germany thanks to a goal from Robert Earnshaw on his debut. The best day was yet to come, as we faced Italy in qualifying for Euro 2004. Buffon, Nesta, Cannavaro, Pirlo, Del Piero…they were no match for Savage, Pembridge, Delaney and co. Craig Bellamy scored a winning goal with 20 minutes to go that still ranks as one of the most exciting moments of my life, and we were top of the group after two games. We won the next two also, and the nation dared to dream once more.
But of course, it all went wrong. We let in a series of late goals against Finland and Serbia and Montenegro that lead to a second place finish behind Italy, resigned to the playoffs. We could have met Latvia, Norway, Slovenia or Scotland, but instead we met Russia. Of course we did. Still, I dared to dream as I watched our side battle to a 0 – 0 draw in an intimidating atmosphere in Moscow. A few days later the Russians visited the Welsh capital for our biggest game in years, but embarrassingly negative tactics from Mark Hughes meant we lost. I waited until my mates I watched the game with had gone home, then cried alone in my room. It was the first time Wales had broken my heart. The second time came just a few days later when it turned out that a Russian player had failed a drugs test, but they wouldn’t be punished for it. We had been cheated. Again.
Older Welsh supporters would not have been surprised by this. In 1977 we had lost to Scotland in a crucial World Cup qualifier, a Joe Jordan handball in the penalty area robbing us of a chance to go to Argentina. Then there was the Paul Bodin penalty miss in 1993, ensuring that Romania went through instead of us, and many more tales of woe. I was lucky that the Welsh football team had only ruined my life once, some people have been doing it for decades.
After this campaign Wales went back to their standard position throughout my life – totally crap. Between October 2007 and September 2011 the only competitive games we won were against San Marino, Liechtenstein and Azerbaijan. Gary Speed arrived as manager during these dark times, starting poorly but soon inspiring the team back to the heady days of 2002. It was already too late to qualify, but Speed inspired us to wins in three of our last four games – the only defeat a very unlucky 1 – 0 loss at Wembley where we really should have taken a point. On the 12th November 2011 we destroyed Norway 4 – 1 at Cardiff City Stadium in our best performance in years, it really could have been 8 – 1. Optimism abounded that Speed would lead us to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, with the players and supporters truly united as one.
Two weeks later, Gary Speed had passed away following his battle with depression. After a short high, Welsh football was now at its lowest ever point. I couldn’t face going to the next 13 matches, eventually watching the team again for the first time at the end of the failed campaign. As this absolutely wonderful video on Welsh football states, the supporters who travelled away to Belgium didn’t even realise that we were witnessing the start of something special.
Because when this campaign came around, something had changed. We won in Andorra. We claimed another magnificent draw in Belgium. We tore Israel apart at their own stadium. Cardiff City Stadium was home to one of the greatest nights in our history, as the team ranked 2nd in the world was deservingly vanquished. Suddenly, we were top of the group with just four matches to play. If we could go to Cyprus and win, we’d have one foot on the plane.
Welsh fans descended on Cyprus in their thousands. Whether they were meeting girls with questionable morals in Ayia Napa, sitting on a beach in Larnaca or enjoying the 42 degree heat in Nicosia, they were all there because they had a dream. A dream that this time Wales wouldn’t let us down. This time we wouldn’t be haunted by despair and bad fortune. This time we would make it. This time…
20 minutes to go in Cyprus, and the hosts clearly hadn’t read the script. Rather than allowing us a comfortable victory to move us just two points from qualification, their resolute defending had ensured the score remained 0 – 0. Our away support has been incredible throughout this campaign, but it was nearly silent throughout this match due to the overwhelming nerves we were feeling. With Joe Allen and Joe Ledley both missing the midfield was struggling to create the chances we needed, and even star man Gareth Bale was having a bit of an off night.
With 15 minutes to go I began to fear the worst. I could just imagine a Cyprus player finding the net after his shot deflected off a defenders backside, and yet another campaign ending in heartbreak. If we lost this it would surely give Israel the confidence they needed to get a result in Cardiff, then we’d need to go to Bosnia to win and…oh god, oh god, oh god.
Speaking of God, 10 minutes to go and I have been reduced to making deals with the big man himself. “Just let us qualify for one tournament” I thought “and I’ll never ask you for anything ever again”. Wales have a corner, but the chance is wasted.
Nine minutes to go. It’s still 0 – 0, and Welsh supporters from Nicosia to Newport have their heads in their hands. It’s happening again, isn’t it?
Eight minutes to go. Wales have the ball deep inside the Cyprus half, frantically pushing forward now. We win another corner, but it is cleared easily. We win back possession, and it ends up with Jazz Richards on the right hand side of the pitch. He looks up once and notices Gareth Bale inside the box. He whips in a cross, but it seems as though it’s too close to the defender. Still, Bale challenges for the ball, meeting it powerfully and…
It’s in. It’s f***ing in!
The away end collapses into delirium. I’ve travelled to the game with a number of friends, all of whom have the same dream as me. One of them wordlessly raises his arms in the air, while others leap around wildly, arms flailing with joy as our dream becomes reality. Before I know it I am four rows away from where I started, waving my shirt around my head and hugging a man I’d never met before and probably never will again. This was not just another goal celebration, because this was about so much more than three points. This was the moment we knew that this time it was happening. No more pathetic failure, this wasn’t even going to be a glorious failure. We were going to do it.
Wales have waited 57 years to reach an international tournament, and the wait for the final whistle after Bale’s goal felt as though it was at least that long. There was still time for Cyprus to have two half chances, but the defence stood firm as it has done for the entire qualification campaign, and finally the referee brought things to an end. Several Welsh players sank to the ground with exhaustion, while the away end went crazy for the second time in ten minutes. I jumped on close friends and total strangers alike, realising the moment our small but proud nation has longed for for so long was finally arriving. This result did not clinch qualification mathematically, but for me it was the moment I knew we would do it. The team forms a huddle in front of the away end, a visual demonstration of the ‘Together Stronger’ motto for the campaign. You could tell from the looks on their faces that they knew just as well as we did. This was it.
Now, all we need is one more point and Hal Robson-Kanu will be a Panini sticker. I’ll take three weeks off work and sleep in a campervan in France. I’ll sing the national anthem at a major tournament. I’ll cry, a lot. BBC pundits will have to pretend they know anything about Chris Gunter. 1958 will become just a year, rather than a curse. One more point, and my longest and most unlikely football ambition will become a reality.
Most of the time being a football supporter is pretty bad. You’ll sit on a coach back from Preston after spending your Saturday watching another 3 – 0 defeat, you’ll get the piss taken out of you, you’ll spend every penny you have watching players who don’t know you exist and wouldn’t care even if they did. But these are not the moments we think about when we think about football. We think about that last-minute goal in the derby. We think about the unlikely giantkilling in the cup, and we think about the time our tiny village team shared a cup draw with Manchester United, Liverpool and company. We think about the moments that make it all worthwhile, and boy do those moments make it worthwhile.
Wales will never win a tournament. We might not even qualify for another one in my lifetime, but it doesn’t matter. At around 11:20pm in Nicosia, Gareth Bale proved that sometimes dreams do come true. There is a flag at every Wales game home and away that reads ‘Fe godwn ni eto’, or in English ‘We will rise again’. They were right. We will. We have.