Euro 2016: Success in a tragic time for Wales
The Welsh have a word for it: “Hwyl.” It means passion, in the emotional or spiritual sense, in their Celtic language.Updated: Jul 04, 2016, 15:34 IST
The Welsh have a word for it: “Hwyl.” It means passion, in the emotional or spiritual sense, in their Celtic language.And the Wales team has certainly been mining a rich seam of it at the European Championship. It beat a strongly-favored Belgium side 3-1 on Friday to line up a semifinal against Portugal, the national team’s biggest achievement since reaching the quarterfinals of the 1958 World Cup.
However, it’s a case of sporting success with a tragic backdrop.
Over the past five years, the Welsh squad and its supporters have been coping with the sudden death of its coach, Gary Speed, who was found hanged in his home in 2011 at the age of 42.
His childhood friend and fellow coach Chris Coleman took over the work that Speed had just begun with Welsh football, a sport constantly in the shadow of rugby - in which Wales has enjoyed global success - and in a country with a population of just over 3 million.
Speed’s progressive methods were starting to pay dividends when he died, a blow to Welsh football lovers who saw the young coach as a role model. He played 85 times for Wales and was its coach for less than a year.
At every major game, the Welsh fans still sing in memory of Speed. “There’s only one Speedo,” goes the chant.
At Euro 2016, excitement about the national team is clearly growing and tens of thousands of fans are expected to make the journey across the English Channel next week for the game against Portugal in Lyon.
That support has become crucial to Welsh success. From a country famed for its singing, the national anthem of Wales, the 1856 song “Hen Flad Fy Mhadau” - which translates into English as “Land of my Fathers” - seems to inspire the team.
“You only have to listen to the ‘hwyl’ (of the anthem) to know the effect it has on the boys,” spectator James Owen of Abertillery, southern Wales, said in Lille. “The national anthem brings tears to your eyes and makes your hair stand on end when it’s sung in a football or rugby stadium.”
Only the Welsh understand the power of their anthem, which translates as follows.
“The Land of my fathers is dear unto me
Land of Poets and singers and people of stature
Her brave warriors, fine patriots
Shed their blood for freedom.”
When Coleman took over in January 2012, Wales had recently been outside the top 100 in the world by FIFA rankings. Wales came into Euro 2016 in 26th position and will rise even further following its run to the semifinals. With 10 goals from five games, Wales is also among the top scoring teams in the competition.
From the qualifying competition to the final tournament, success has helped to make Wales a closely-knit squad - and that also includes their children.
After the final whistle, as the crowd sings to the team, the players regularly bring their children onto the pitch and let them run around kicking footballs. About 10,000 fans cheered Gareth Bale’s three-year-old daughter in Paris when she managed to kick the ball into the net.
“We never forget our belief and our identity,” Coleman told a news conference after Friday’s victory.
Bale is the team’s undoubted star, but he is much more of a team player with Wales than he is with Real Madrid. As captain, he leads by example, working tirelessly.
His relationship with Wales could not be more different than that of his club teammate Cristiano Ronaldo with the rest of the Portugal squad. Ronaldo often appears aloof from other players in the national side, and he can win games single handedly.
There is also a contrast between the fortunes of the Welsh and their neighbour England, which still sees itself as a footballing giant despite a consistent record of tournament failure since winning the World Cup in 1966.
Welsh fans chanted, “Are You Watching England” as Wales scored its third goal in the victory over Belgium, one of the tournament favourites.
England failed to make it beyond the last 16, slumping to an embarrassing defeat to Iceland.
From watching Euro 2012 on TV to playing in the semifinals of Euro 2016, the turnaround for the Welsh is little short of remarkable.
“Four years ago we were as far away as you can be from where we are right now,” Coleman said. “We find ourselves in an incredible position.”