Scenes of Pride and Devastation: Photographing London's Welsh Fans
Ahead of the biggest game in the history of Welsh football, we went to photograph Wales fans in London. The result was gutting, but the reaction one of complete acclaim.
All photos by the author
It has become a cliche to associate Wales with the word "pride". So too with calling Welsh sports teams "valiant" in defeat. These terms come partly from Wales' history as the perennial underdog, and partly from the national psyche of playing up, struggling on and fighting in the face of fearful odds. Often the "valiant" tag is used in offhandedly patronising fashion, usually on the other side of the border. As for pride, however, there is a good reason that the term has come to epitomise Wales. When it comes to the reaction of Welsh football fans to their defeat to Portugal on Wednesday evening, pride is the only way to describe it.
There were plenty of reasons for Welsh fans to acclaim their Euro 2016 campaign. Billed as a side who would do well to get out of the group stage, Wales not only progressed to the knockout rounds, but practically thrived. Victory over a dogged Northern Ireland side in the Round of 16 saw the team match the achievements of their semi-legendary predecessors, the World Cup squad of 1958, and reach the quarter-finals of a major tournament. That was, of course, the only time that Wales had ever qualified for a major international competition. As such, anything beyond the Euro 2016 quarters would be historic, momentous and completely unprecedented.
Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and co. went on to top the Class of '58, emphatically dispatching Belgium and securing a spot in the last four. Triumph over Marc Wilmots' side set up a semi-final against Portugal, and pitted Wales against yet another formidable foe. It is no exaggeration to say that the match represented the most significant event in the history of Welsh football, and one of the most important fixtures in the history of the British game as a whole. Wanting to capture some of the spirit of the match, VICE Sports went to photograph fans at The London Welsh Centre, the hub of the Welsh community in the capital and without doubt the friendliest venue on the Gray's Inn Road.
The crowd at The Welsh Centre is a mixed bunch, and one of the best when it comes to creating an atmosphere. Some, like myself, are Londoners with a Welsh background. Others are Welsh people living in London, while there are voices raised above the din of the main screening room which sound like they've come from straight from the four far corners of Wales. Despite the pre-match tension, fans are in full voice, with the songbook ranging from the traditional ('Cwm Rhondda', 'Sosban Fach' and so on) to the modern, including that chant based on 'Zombie Nation' and several songs about Joe Ledley.
If singing is the lifeblood of Welsh culture, then football is the perfect medium for Welshness. Most fans seem to feel that an age has passed since the quarter-final against Belgium, and the accumulated anxiety is unleashed in a torrent of song. Several hundred Wales fans have now filled the venue to the rafters and – one stirring, on-our-feet rendition of the national anthem later – the lights dim, the nerves audibly jangle, and the show finally begins.
While Wales have a fair few early chances, Portugal soon settle into their rhythm. The suspended Aaron Ramsey is a huge miss for Chris Coleman's side, who look somehow disconnected, divided in the middle of the park. The noise of the fans echoes off the rooftop, and is only temporarily quelled by Cristiano Ronaldo's opener early in the second half. When Nani scores a few minutes later, though, it feels like a punch to the gut.
There is devastation etched onto people's faces as the clock ticks down, and the realisation of impending defeat sinks in. Nobody has ever witnessed a Welsh football team do so well, and it's possible that their achievements will never be repeated. Wales' glorious campaign is about to come to an end, and the collective joy of the last few weeks is soon to be curtailed.
For those who have allowed themselves to dream of an appearance in the final, and perhaps more, it's a long, long fall back to earth. The singing is temporarily quelled and, for a moment or two, it looks as if the evening might trail off, ending in reflection, brooding and quiet melancholy.
Nonetheless, at the final whistle, the singing breaks out louder than ever. There is a spontaneous show of adoration for the side, and barely anyone heads for the door. Perhaps there is an element of wanting to live the dream a little while longer, but there is also an overwhelming sense of gratitude to the players. There is massive, massive pride about what Wales have achieved, and a feeling of togetherness, of genuine and unconditional support.
When fans do, at last, head for the exits, people are individually commiserated by the Welsh Centre staff. Wales' adventure may have been cut short, but the sense of community that comes with it is alive and well. There are tears, there is sadness, but there is also immeasurable pride, and hope for the future of Welsh football. Altogether, that will be the legacy of Wales' Euro 2016 campaign, and it will live on long after the songs have faded into the night.