by Rhys Thomas
We’re at Wembley, England. The spiritual home of Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsay, the place where Ben Davies’ Spurs had to win away two seasons ago. We’re there, it’s a humid 19 degrees with showers.
It feels like a night that has never happened yet has never ended. A blip in the universe. A jolt back in time, but not to the same place. There is no way to describe being at the edge of history. To be there, real-time, witnessing seconds that mean more than, or have more impact than any that have come before. Watching each turn of the ankle, each extension of the elbow, each jolt from heel to knee carry more tension and weight than any that have come before. And seeing each nanosecond of this in real-time, while taking in every note and rhythm of emotion both heard and felt that reverbs around you in a stadium of tens of thousands, is how you’d imagine the cinema would be if you plugged it iMAX into your cranium.
And consequently time goes really fucking fast, so reporting on this is a nightmare.
We’re four minutes in, and I’m living details without watching them. I am as distanced as the ink is to the paper: something happens, I’m right fucking there, so close in that it’s just a red blot. If nothing happens, it’s blank. So all the best reading this, my followers. Truth be told, I’m not even thinking. I’m talking to you on auto-pilot, a dictaphone is recording it. I’m not missing this one.
Apparently, some reporter was taken hostage last night? All the best to him. I, for one, am glued to the seat. Almost literally. Plus I got officially fired from the paper for putting my acid-trip-ramblings up on my old Tumblr instead of in their CMS, so I can do what the fuck I want now. I can even spoil the game for you: we (bias intended) lost.
I don’t care. It is somewhat comforting to see Wales look small again. As with any underdog, you will always figure out a way to not push your luck, to be a club or country that undersells yourself and can graciously bow out. We could have done that in the Round of 16, if we’re honest. Even four years ago. There’s a new manager, the country is still 18 times smaller than England, 22 times smaller than France. It wouldn’t matter if we failed, and thus it is simply bedlam to win. But we’re currently losing 1-0 and I’m trying not to cry, so I would say all of this, wouldn’t I.
The goal (11 mins) was champagne football, as it should be: Varane slides and steals the ball from Moore near his box. Runs with it a few yards, passes it out to Sissoko who decides to go down the wing (no idea why, he’s out of position), crosses it beautifully to Pogba who backheels first touch right between Davies and Roberts, Kante, smiling, runs onto it and passes it from left post to Mbappe on the right, who taps it in: en sueur. Hennessey is somewhere in the net like a puppet without strings, a scarecrow knocked over and covered in the shit of a Gallic rooster. The stand around me is a river of perspiration, piss, and tears.
Re-start, 12 minutes in. Wales regain some composure and the match stabilises. All action is around the middle third. Wales edge to the French goal, they counter. We counter. They counter. Etc.
I can see Giggs looking at Evra in the crowd. Zidane is in the stadium too, and visibly boos every time Bale gets within five metres of the ball. And then he cheers, as Bale is sliced to shreds by Pavard around the halfway line on half-time, proper bastard of a tackle. Easy yellow. Yellow given, too. Bale elects to take the free kick. He seems a bit disorientated as he lays on the floor, lining up the ball on the green. He then takes a step to the side of the ball, legs shoulder width apart, and cups his hands. Suddenly, the ball is with James who was standing on the far touchline, and he’s darting down the wing, leaving Varane and Sissoko for dust.
He crosses it in. It lands with Wilson, and it flies off the post to Mendy who clears the ball over everyone to Griezmann like it’s a Google Maps exercise. He sets up a floating ball to Giroud, who brings it down with his head, it bounces over Davies’ boots, Giroud runs around and sticks a toe on it, off the post and in. And that’s half-time. And may as well be the end of my life. But it isn’t.
For the next I don’t know how long, I can hear The Streets.
In one single moment your whole life can turn around,
I stand there for a minute staring straight into the ground.
Looking to the left slightly then looking back down,
the world feels like it's caved in proper sorry frown.
He’s a Birmingham City fan, Skinner. The one who wrote that. They don’t need it right now.
I need it right now because we’ve gone and bloody scored. And I am seeing a real-time teenage boy breakup with my apathy. The young ones did it. Ampadu running, to Brooks, Ampadu, to Wilson, to Brooks, to Wilson now in the box, and across to James and smashed in. A tiki-taka onslaught of absolute class. And now I actually have to be optimistic about the future. Even though it’s the 83rd minute (and we do fuck all else but flap about defending until 90+2), I have to be optimistic, because we have more than three good players now. And so when it comes to all other tournaments in the future, we will be a team who have two semi-finals on the bounce, and a bunch of young players that are elite. I am not ready to take this game seriously. I remember narrowly beating Azerbaijan not a year ago. It’s funny how ridiculous football is, isn’t it?
“Anyway, it’s all done now and we have nothing but pride to show. Two semi-finals in four years. We’re one of the best in Europe,” Giggs says. I agree, but I still fucking hate him.