Gary Raymond looks ahead to Wales in Europe as the delayed Euro Championships gets underway, and hopes the politics will be very much kept in the football.
To respectfully misquote the eminently quotable Sergeant Adrian Cronauer, I’m in more dire need of an international football tournament than any white man in history. Okay, so I’ve had my fix with the snooker, the darts, a bit of retro football on TV, and when it comes to man’s insatiable appetite for competitive entertainment, the archive of Taskmaster on All4 has done some serious heavy lifting in my house the over last six months. But there’s nothing like an international football tournament. Because football, for its myriad faults, is family, and these tournaments, usually, in pre-Covid times, is a family get-together, or a get-together of several families, when the tribal differences of the day-to-day club game are put to one side and neighbour, for a few weeks, no longer looks suspiciously upon neighbour because of the scarf they have draped in the back window of their Vauxhall Astra.
Football, as they say, is the language everyone understands, the great leveller, the global bond, like Esperanto or the music of ABBA. All other sports, no matter how dearly I hold them to my heart, do not bring as many nations to the table (or field, or court, or wicket). Those nations bring with them a validating weight. The Olympics maybe can outdo it, but it’s a buffet affair that encourages fleeting obsessions with minority interest sports (curling, anyone? – well, yes, me every four years); rugby obviously has the umbilical pull for the Welsh – I’m no different there – but nothing comes close to the buzz of a football tournament. Every nation on Earth (and probably a few beyond) dreams of winning some major international football trophy. And we’ve been on hold, paused by the pandemic in one of its more weighty inconveniences. It feels like later today, when the European Championship finally kicks off, there will be a collective exhalation that could destabilise the orbit of the moon.
Biennial international football tournaments for us inside the European zone (other continents don’t run their “local” tournaments quite so in tune with the World Cup calendar) are part of the natural rhythms of the game. For generations now the two-yearly flip from World Cup to European Championship has been part of the circadian tapestry of international football. The tournaments sit at the end of the domestic season, the same but different to the club game we dedicate ourselves to week-in-week-out. The stakes may be higher, but they are isolated ready to be entombed in the memory of a summer.
And as much as we all love a World Cup (no need to remind me the idea of the WC is much more exciting than the actual football at a WC), it’s the European Championships where real magic can happen. For a start, anybody can win it, unlike the World Cup which has had just eight winners of twenty-one tournaments (ten countries have shared the fifteen European Championship titles). That’s why in 2016, when Wales reached the semi-finals, winning the entire thing was most definitely on, and we weren’t all just waiting for the inevitable steamroller of Brazil or Germany or Italy to come along and stake their rightful claim on the final. The history of the European Championships is littered with real surprises. Greece winning it in 2004 is up there with Leicester City winning the Premier League. John Jensen’s screaming winner for Denmark in ’92 seems to still encapsulate a vibe of the heart of what football is, the same mix of aspiration and soulfulness that recently humiliated the grubby smash and grab of the European Super League clubs. The European Championship is not boring. Think of England’s journey in their home tournament in ’96. France and then Spain adding the trophy to their World Cup wins. Go back to 1988 and the fabulously entertaining Dutch masters of Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard, and Marco Van Basten (whose volleyed goal in the final against the Soviet Union is regarded as one of the greatest of all time).
The world has changed a great deal since the last European Championship, of course. But also, it hasn’t. The England team has been at the centre of a debate as sections of their own fans have booed them for showing solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement by “taking the knee” before kick-off. An England side showing off some critical faculties may be new, but one thing that remains consistent is politicians. As the tournament has edged closer, our elected officials have either professed to be embarrassed by footballers taking the knee or embarrassed by those who boo them for it. The common call has come for politics to be kept out of sport. Nobody, not Labour and not the Tories, wants to fall behind in the courting of the white supremacist vote. Cricket has found itself in a similar political muddle, suspending Ollie Robinson while they investigate racist and misogynist tweets from his teenage years that were unearthed the morning of the first Test against New Zealand last week. Who knew the politics of bigotry was such a minefield? Racist Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Culture War secretary Oliver Dowden both said Robinson’s suspension had “gone too far”. All of this is old news, they argue, and, frankly, who wasn’t a racist bellend when they were nineteen? Guffaw guffaw guffaw. It’s something we all grow out of. We need to keep politics out of sport and being a pig is political, just as George Orwell said.
So, we don’t go into the tournament with the carefree all-embracing cuddly cwtchy light skip so commonly associated with Association Football fandom. The Welsh team has been taking the knee for a while, but without boos. At least, not from their own fans. We’ll wait and see the reaction of the crowd in Azerbaijan on Saturday. But let’s keep positive. Wales take the knee, and they have the support of the fans (or at least the vocal bigoted opposition remains muted by shame, which was how society used to work). The players have thought about this. We should be thankful for the example being set by players like Ben Cabango who has joined the ranks of dignified spokespersons for the politics of human decency. So, if fighting racism and bigotry is politics, then I say keep the politics in sport, and let’s show the rest of Europe and the world this tournament what Wales is made of. I for one am desperate to be proud of something.
Gary Raymond is a novelist, broadcaster, and editor of Wales Arts Review.