Every loser wins
As I stand in the rain on an uncovered terrace is Bosnia, tears falling from my eyes as a squad of delirious footballers celebrates in front of 750 even happier supporters, I think about football and its unique ability to change your life.
To those who don’t understand, those who don’t ‘get it’, the events unfolding in the away end will seem bizarre. Here was a group of people who had spent a lot of money to travel hundreds of miles to watch a 2-0 defeat while getting soaked to the skin, and yet most of them will remember it as the best night of their lives.
With ten minutes left to go, text messages started to arrive that Cyprus had scored in Israel to go 2-1 up, as mums, dads, girlfriends and mates across Wales delivered the good news. This goal left the score in our game meaningless, Israeli’s would need to score twice to keep their hopes of overtaking us alive.
With the away end going absolutely mental over a goal they hadn’t seen scored by a player they’d never heard of, the players realised something was up. Substitute James Collins ran over to the away end, shouted “are they losing?” and then ran off back to the bench beaming with delight.
Bryn Law, TV presenter and most of all, Wales supporter, was also there. “Bryn Law, what’s the score? Bryn Law Bryn Law what’s the score?” sang the travelling fans, with the white haired veteran of the Welsh team jumping up and down with delight before holding up “1-2” on his fingers, causing the Wales supporters to celebrate all over again.
To see Law celebrate in this way was a fitting way to complete the emotional journey this team, this set of supporters and this country had been on. In 2011 he had broken down while giving an interview about the passing of great friend and Welsh legend Gary Speed. It was the darkest moment in the history of Welsh football, and one that it felt as though we would never recover from.
Speed will never be forgotten and his death will be a tragedy that follows us forever, but just four years later his team had delivered the ultimate tribute. Tears of sadness had turned to tears of joy, as Wales reached a major tournament for the first time since 1958.
Mathematically we qualified because Israel lost to Cyprus, but in reality it was not here that qualification had been secured. That had been done by finding a way to win in Andorra despite playing very poorly on a pitch that was even worse. It was done by defending heroically in Brussels. By holding on to victory against Cyprus despite playing most of the game with ten men. By going to Haifa and playing Israel off the pitch. And of course, it was done on that magical night against Belgium in the Cardiff City Stadium.
These results did not happen by chance. They came about through a wonderful effort from everyone involved with the FAW to bring the nation together. The Welsh team had often suffered from players not wanting to play for the country, especially a certain winger that played his football in Manchester. There had also been problems in the stands, with Cardiff and Swansea supporters clashing on occasion, as well as some issues with Newport fans. This has well and truly been left in the past now, with Wales probably the most united team in all of international football.
Like the majority of people inside the away end on the night that will live forever in Welsh football, I’ve been to every away match in this campaign. A long drive through the Andorran mountains after UEFA only revealed the venue a week before the match. A Megabus home from Brussels at 4am, arriving at 7am and going straight to the office in a not particularly good state. Getting drunk one night and booking Israel away with a 16 hour stopover at Kiev airport…both ways. Flying to Cyprus via Belgrade and then doing five weeks of physiotherapy after tearing two ligaments in my knee celebrating the winning goal, and then finally flying to Tuzla (the smallest airport you can ever imagine) before getting a shuttle bus to Sarajevo at 2am with the driver stopping at a petrol station on the way to speak to six massive Bosnian men sitting in a Landrover. These are memories that will live with me forever, and I’ve been able to meet many new friends along the way who I will make more lifelong memories with in future campaigns.
These stories are not unique to me. In fact, everyone has them. Someone I met had flown in via Istanbul, a couple of others from Budapest, many from Belgrade and others in Zagreb, Frankfurt and more. Especially for our supporters from North Wales who don’t have the convenience of Cardiff and Bristol airports, it can be a real challenge to follow an international team away, but it’s always worth it.
As games go, this wasn’t the best – but with the conditions and what was at stake it was never likely to be. Bosnia were the side that needed to win, and they came out quickly to open the game. With Dzeko missing they were robbed of their biggest attacking threat, but they still looked to be a good side. They are certainly better than Cyprus and Israel, and I strongly expect them to make the playoffs in the coming days. If they do make the playoffs, it will be very difficult for whoever comes to Zenica. The small stadium is packed full of Bosnia’s craziest supporters, including a guy on an apartment balcony overlooking the stadium who waved a flare about with his wife after the opening goal! Wales fans taunted him with “you’ve only got one flare” after he failed to repeat the celebration the second time around.
With Wales having two separate away ends there was also time for some chanting at each other, the main stand supporters singing “We’re so dry it’s unbelievable” and “Where the ****ing hells your roof?” to us, with “You posh bastards” and “£16, you’re having a laugh” coming in response (tickets were only £8 in our section). There was also a touching moment where both away ends sung “sheepshaggers” at each other, a uniquely Welsh way to show affection.
I could write more about the game, but honestly there is no real point. For the closing stages hardly anyone was even looking at the pitch, with the away supporters either going completely mental or sat anxiously waiting for Israel to bring on Sergio Aguero to score twice in injury time.
For once, the heartbreak never came. With “We love you Cyprus, we do” coming from the away end, time expired and with it, so did 57 years of waiting. Our small nation has long been the joke of international football, mocked by English supporters as they qualified for tournament after tournament when we couldn’t make a single one. At one stage below even the Faroe Islands (and 100 other teams) in the world rankings, nobody is laughing now. We will take our place on the world stage, and we will deserve every second of it.
The Welsh players sprinted over to the away stand, sliding on their bellies across the turf in a state of ecstacy. Wales fans jumped around, sang song after song and wiped away tears. The moment we have always dreamed of but never expected had arrived, and many people clearly just didn’t know what to do. A version of the national anthem was sung so loudly that it was as though we wanted Gary Speed himself to hear it. Wherever he is, he will be very proud of what was accomplished here.
The players took pictures with flags, danced along to the songs and joined in with the chanting themselves. Gareth Bale is a Champions League winner, but that didn’t stop him from singing Hal Robson-Kanu chants while being carried around on Aaron Ramsey’s back. A mention must go to Joe Ledley, who produced dance moves so good they almost outshone his beard.
The celebrations went on and on in the away end, nobody wanting to leave despite the continued rain. After a short coach journey back to Sarajevo, myself and a friend found an Elvis themed bar that was open until 4am. Two bottles of rakija were consumed along with enough beer to sink a battleship, with the owner of the bar kindly letting us pick the music. I didn’t know how I would celebrate qualification if I ever experienced it, but dancing to Zombie Nation underneath a poorly done painting of Elvis Presley now seems the obvious answer.
So to return to the opening paragraph, this Wales campaign has indeed changed my life. I’ve been to places I could never imagine visiting otherwise, I’ve felt the kind of happiness that you just can’t get from many other things in life, and I know that even if Wales never reach another tournament or even win another game, it will have all been worth it. Together Stronger was the motto of the campaign, and it could not be more accurate. We faced up to every long journey, every challenge and every hangover in an airport departures hall together. The dragon has woken, and his fire burns brighter than ever before. France, we’re coming.