The year of the underdog: Wales's stunning win over Belgium shows why we love football
Wales proved that 2016 is the year of the underdog with a stunning victory over Belgium, writes Alex Chick in Lille.
What a night. What a match. What a team.
Press box neutrality took the evening off in Lille as Wales produced a Euro 2016 comeback so stirring you would have to be certified dead not to get goosebumps.
Alongside me, grown men and women of the media cheered and embraced at the end of a match that did more than see Wales progress to the semi-finals of a European Championship – it encapsulated why we love football, and what it can make us feel.
Ashley Williams celebrates scoring for Wales against BelgiumReuters
It has been a noxious few days in England since Monday’s defeat to Iceland. The dismal quality of the performance was matched by the poisonous reaction of the newspapers, featuring a disgraceful campaign against Raheem Sterling.
There seem so many reasons to give up on football – the money, the greed, the cynicism, the endless crushing disappointment.
And then there comes along a night like this to remind us why we all bother. A night to lift the heart; one to recall when the sport’s grubby side gets us down.
Commiserations to Belgium, whose brilliant fans will feel much the same about this as England’s do about the Iceland debacle.
Though Belgium’s population dwarfs Wales’s by a factor of only four (not the 160 of England/Iceland) the parallels were clear - a skillful group of individuals on one side, a genuine team on the other.
How many thrilling underdog stories must we see before we twig that this might not be an accident?
Euro 2016 has shown how teams’ standard of play has levelled out. Despite the 24-team format, every side could defend. Every team could trouble their opponent on the counter.
By my count, we have only seen one true mismatch (Germany’s 3-0 win over Slovakia - even Belgium’s 4-0 against Hungary was competitive for a long time).
As playing standards equalise, matches get decided by more than technical ability or basic organisation.
It is not just about effort. England tried on Monday. Really, they did.
Distraught England playersReuters
What held them back was a hesitancy, a fear. Suddenly they were thinking about everything they did instead of letting it come naturally. Instead of believing they would help their team to victory, they became scared of letting them down.
In his book Bounce, ex-table tennis player Matthew Syed described the feeling of choking at the 2000 Olympics:
"It's like you've reverted to being a beginner again. You don't think about how you're moving your right knee and right elbow or wrist when you hit a forehand slice when you're a professional table tennis player. And suddenly I'm thinking about it, and as you try harder and harder you get worse and worse.”
That’s England. They were thinking about what they were doing, and as a result they did it badly.
Wales weren’t thinking. They were playing.
There is something incredibly potent about the combination of ingredients brought to the table by Wales, Iceland and Leicester City:
- Low expectations, lack of pressure
- Strong team spirit a desire to work for each other
As teams level out in the first two, the others become more important. They allow players to surpass themselves. They allow Hal Robson-Kanu to do a Cruyff turn in the Belgian box despite being, well... Hal Robson-Kanu.
Hal Robson-Kanu scores for Wales against BelgiumReuters
So, what now? Portugal next in Lyon on Wednesday.
On current evidence, Portugal are a worse version of Belgium. Just as disjointed as a team, but not as skilled individually. But we don’t learn. The bookies make Portugal strong favourites to come through.
But Wales are creating magic at Euro 2016, and the greatest team in the country’s history is two matches from WINNING THE EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIP.
There is no reason why they cannot go all the way. If 2016 has told us anything, it is that the old conventions have changed.
Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the team that looks like a team wins.