I am writing this on a coach full of Welsh fans travelling through the flat countryside of the Pays de Calais heading for Paris, where Wales take part in its second ‘Battle of Britain’ at Euro 2016, when they play Northern Ireland in the Round of 16 knockout stage, writes Ashok Ahir.
As we set off on Friday morning, the UK woke up knowing that we were heading out of the EU.
Wales as a nation voted to leave the EU, the vote dividing by 52.5% to 47.5% for Brexit, but not a single person in Wales wants to see #Wexit from the Euros today.
It feels as if the whole nation has been on a Euros adventure since last October, when the team from our small nation qualified for what is one of the most high-profile sporting events in the world. What was once a dream has now turned into a full-blown fantasy, as the team not only progressed through the group stages, but came out on top, ahead of England, Russia and Slovakia.
Wales’ footballers have captivated the whole country with the way they have played and conducted themselves. Schools, communities, businesses and clubs have all taken to social media to demonstrate how Wales is truly #TogetherStronger.
Children have sung, created art, written poems and songs and have even sent inspirational speech-writing suggestions to Chris Coleman, for the Wales manager to use in his pre-match team talks.
Wales have firmly placed their red shirts on the European (and world) stage, although they didn’t play in red against England and we all know what happened in that game. At home the national colour has been lighting up landmarks, as town and cities have ben sending positive vibes across the skies to France.
While the team has had an impact on the pitch which has been noticed by pundits across the globe, their work off the field has also drawn great plaudits.
Britanny, where the Wales team has been based since the beginning of June, has taken the Welsh to heart. Hundreds of local school–children turned out to watch the team train and locals in Dinard gave them a rapturous welcome at the seaside town’s small airport when they arrived back from a historic victory over Russia in Toulouse.
The team have made themselves at home in Dinard, away from the intensity of the host cities. Their use of four langauges at their training headquarters – English, Welsh, French and Breton – has been applauded. As has their use of both French and Breton on social media.
In fact such has been the impact of the team’s demonstration of bilingualism, that even their sponsors have gotten in on the act. With Adidas, a global super-brand that has Gareth Bale as one of its key ambassadors, tweeting a Welsh-only message at the end of the Wales-Russia game.
Elsewhere across France, in the fanzones of host cities, supporters from many competing nations have decided that Wales are their new ‘second team’. A choice determined not just by the goal-scoring of the superstar that is Gareth Bale but also by the performances of the rest of the team.
Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen have both shown why they are among the best midfielders in Britain and other lesser known names have also made their mark. They include Neil Taylor, the Swansea full-back who scored his first international goal against Russia, thereby becoming the first British Asian to score at a major football championships.
What has made Wales stand out even further is the mark that their fans have made in the cities where the team has played. This was most evident in their first match in Bordeaux, where Welsh fans were praised by the authorities, for the way they turned the city into a festival of celebration of their nation’s arrival on the global football stage. Instead of fighting in the streets, as was happening in Marseille at the time, they filled the streets with song and frivolity and even serenaded a newly married couple.
As we arrive on the Parisien peripherique, it’s time me to start enjoying myself.
My sons and I are arriving here like thosands of other Wales fans, without a ticket but full of hope. We’re here to celebrate and enjoy and we’ll be singing along with our friends from Northern Ireland in the Eiffel Tour fanzone.
Just as long as we beat them, and no-one mentions the referendum.