Football is a funny old game, isn’t it? I suppose I think of myself in this world of non-stop identity politics as British and English, albeit with an Irish name, but I really, really want Wales to win this evening.
It’s almost a shameful sort of feeling that’s crept in, unworthy, disloyal, confusing. Doesn’t happen so much with Scotland or Ireland or Northern Ireland. And certainly not with France, Germany, Argentina, Brazil, Portugal or Holland. It’s the Welsh, though. The ultimate underdogs – underdragons, if you like.
I habitually back England, and, like so many, I’ve had more than my share of losing. I can still just about remember the vaguely pointless feeling of the 1974 tournament because England weren’t even there (albeit Scotland was). We had to adopt Ally’s tartan army in 1978 because England failed to qualify, again – and this gives necessary perspective to their current showing.
Gareth Southgate’s penalty. Losing to Croatia last time round. Italy prevailing only last year at the Euros final in Wembley. See – it’s not so long since Southgate and the squad were national heroes. But Wales haven’t been in anything much at all since before most of their fans and all of their squad were grown. Wouldn’t it be nice if Wales and England could both win?
This particular time, you get more conflicted. It wouldn’t really be any skin of England’s nose if they lost by a goal or two – only a real thumping by Wales would mean that Harry Kane and his band of brothers would have to get the plane home. But I even dream a little about just that – Wales winning 5-0. It could happen. Gareth Bale and all that.
We all like an upset when it happens to Argentina (beaten by Saudi Arabia coming from behind) or Germany (an unlikely loss to Japan). England not so much, of,course but it would be quite the spectacle. One for the ages. “I was there”, sort of.
I guess it’s because Wales is the underdog against (relatively) mighty England, and to favour the underdog, well, that’s actually a very English thing, isn’t it? It’s a natural impulse. I almost never want Portugal to win – England being the obvious exception – because they just have it so easy really, and Cristiano Ronaldo is so annoying. Uruguay were robbed in any case.
The cliche about Cymru is that they’ve got “passion” because they can sing and they’ve got Michael Sheen ringing in their ears. And Bale is this kind of Celtic footballing god, isn’t it he, with his funny hair cut and billowing cheeks. It’s all very mystical and romantic, the cult of the dragonhearts, and they must have such fun out in Doha telling the Ecuadoreans and the Korea fans that they’re not English at all, see, because Wales is virtually an independent country, with its own language, identity, cuisine – but not yet its own football league.
Sadly for some of them, they’ll have to explain why Wales voted for Brexit, whereas Scotland and Northern Ireland didn’t. Imagine having to do that in the beating desert sun.
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Whether by accident or design, the Qatar World Cup, which began as such as PR disaster, is developing into a successful festival of football. The matches are staggered so that from morning til night, if you’ve the time, you can spend all day watching some of the best footballers in the world perform on the stage – indeed some of the best players of all time. And when Portugal, France, Brazil and Argentina go through to the next round, there’ll be plenty more to see.
Even matches that appear to hold no great promise – Serbia v Cameroon, say, or Korea v Ghana – can turn into multi-goal thrillers. It has indeed become all about the football. It’s about whether the most remote atoms of Ronaldo’s hair brushed the ball that Bruno Fernandes put into the Uruguayan net – the “hair of god” debate. It’s about Richarlison’s magical opening goal. It’s about how far the politically heroic Iran players can get.
Yet apart from the team the ayatollahs must be hoping will lose to “Great Satan” America (funny old world) and their matches, none of the pundits are talking about politics, about the human rights abuses still happening now in Qatar or the miserable deaths of those poor migrant workers who built all the magnificent stadiums.
We’re arguing about VAR and the application of the penalty rule if a player inadvertently breaks his fall and touches the ball. Indeed, we’re playfully discussing Wales’ chances of a miracle breakthrough like it’s biggest issue facing post-Brexit Britain. Whoever we support, we’re being sportswashed.