BORDEAUX: For the thousands of long-suffering Wales supporters excitedly travelling to France this week, the road to the 2016 European Championship has been long, perilous and, at times, seemingly never-ending.
Gareth Bale and his team-mates face off against Slovakia in their Group B opener in Bordeaux on Saturday, after the minnows secured a place at a major tournament for the first time since the 1958 World Cup in Sweden.
With neighbours England to follow in Lens next week, it promises to be a giddy few days for the fans of Chris Coleman’s side, some of whom never thought they would see their country’s football team reach a major tournament.
“I’ve been pinching myself that it’s actually true,” Wales supporter Tim Hartley, 56, told AFP.
“We’ve always been the bridesmaid. We’ve always looked with envy at England, who seem to take it in their stride.
“That’s why we’re going to enjoy it and suck every last minute out of it, because this is our time. This is the golden generation of footballers and for us supporters, this is what we’ve been praying for.”
Around 24,000 Wales fans have managed to secure a prized ticket for the Slovakia game and reports suggest that there could be as many as 30,000 Welsh supporters in Bordeaux.
Fans are travelling to France from Wales — population 3.1 million — via Belgium, northern Spain and even Turkey in efforts to keep costs down.
Hartley, in France with his 22-year-old son, Chester, and two friends, is a seasoned Wales watcher, having journeyed as far afield as Iceland, Armenia, Azerbaijan — three times — and the United States.
“People don’t understand. Normal people don’t go on holiday to Armenia and Azerbaijan,” he says.
“If you follow Wales away, football has been almost secondary to the good times.”
He was present in May 1976 when Wales could only draw 1-1 at home to the former Yugoslavia, denying them a place at that year’s European Championship finals, and in November 1993, when a 2-1 defeat by Romania in Cardiff cost them a spot at the following year’s World Cup.
– Eight defeats, one goal –
Robyn Cooke, a 26-year-old Wales fan who hails from the northwest island of Anglesey, relates a similar tale of misery.
He witnessed the 1-0 loss to Russia in November 2003 that destroyed the Euro 2004 qualifying ambitions of a team that featured Manchester United great Ryan Giggs and future Wales manager Gary Speed, who died in 2011.
Cooke, who is attending the games against Slovakia and England, once saw Wales lose eight games in succession under former manager John Toshack, during which time they scored just one goal.
“It almost hasn’t really sunk in,” he says.
“You see the videos of the players coming off the plane and it’s all a bit surreal. You see Wales players in sticker books and adverts for the campaign. It’s all a bit weird.”
Manager Coleman praised supporters for their role in his side’s breakthrough qualifying campaign.
He described a rendition of the Welsh national anthem, ‘Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau’ (Old Land of My Fathers), that was spontaneously sung during last year’s 1-0 win over Belgium in Cardiff as “one of the most powerful, uplifting experiences of my life”.
While Wales qualified in impressive fashion, optimism has since been tempered by a run of four friendly games without victory.
But Cooke says: “Most fans are probably just happy to be there. We’ve waited for so long.
“There’s a bit of fear that we’re going to get battered in every game. But Wales fans tend to flutter between extreme pessimism and extreme optimism.
“It’s either ‘We’re going to get battered’ or ‘We’re going to win the thing.'”
As one fan wrote on Twitter: “I’ve waited all my life for Wales to qualify for a major tournament. I won’t let Wales being absolutely s*** ruin it.”