I wonder how many people reading this can say with certainty that a specific summer “was the best summer of my life”. Maybe you went to loads of festivals when you were young and carefree, and the weather was uncharacteristically perfect for camping (2018 too hot, 2012 too wet, 1976 too hot and the toilet situation too unpredictable). Maybe you’re an enormous fan of the Romanian tennis player Simona Halep, and her Wimbledon win in 2019 sustained you throughout the rest of that July and August. For thousands of Welsh football fans, the question is an easy one.
In 2016 “this is the best summer of my life” was something we’d mutter to ourselves, wild-eyed with gleeful disbelief, as we bumped into each other in Bordeaux, Lille, Paris and Toulouse. It was better than we could ever have imagined. Complete strangers making friends, in a way that comes naturally when you walk into a bar and see another group of people holding a Welsh flag with the name of an impossibly small village written on it in felt tip. “There’ll be people from all over the planet watching tonight’s game mate, so with any luck, they’ll get to see the name … Ffostrasol.”
It’s five years ago now, but my mind routinely drifts back to France. Wales hadn’t qualified for anything since 1958 (we actually got to the quarter-finals of the 1976 European Championship, but technically the final tournament didn’t begin until the semi-finals in those days so, much to Terry Yorath and John Toshack’s chagrin, it doesn’t officially count. Much to my chagrin, it was four years before I was born).
Eight tournaments between 1960 and 2014 that we’d been within a game of qualifying for, a heartbreaking list of near-misses that the battle-hardened true believers could reel off in that way musicians can reel off the ways they were let down by their record label. I wouldn’t say getting to the semi-finals of Euro 2016 made up for those failures, as I’d have loved to see Ian Rush at Mexico ’86, and Ryan Giggs at USA ’94, but it did mean that once we were there we made the most of it. The release of almost 60 years’ worth of frustration. We drank and danced in that way anyone would, if you were finally allowed into a party you’d dreamed of attending since you were a kid.
We deleted photos of our children from our phones so we could take photos of Hal Robson-Kanu warming up. Some people quit their jobs to be there, some nutters drove from Aberystwyth to Toulouse in a minibus, some people are still paying off their credit cards. No one wanted to miss a second. When we remembered the unlikely ways we’d managed to mess up qualifying in the past it was agreed this could be a once-in-a-lifetime thing.
A common refrain as 24,000 of us walked to the ground in Bordeaux for the first game against Slovakia was: “I’d just like to see us score a goal. Just one. I’ll be happy after we’ve sung the anthem, but I’d just love to see a goal.” When you are from a country big enough to produce a John Charles but small enough to make him play alongside someone from the Third Division (South), being there is what counts. Maybe if I were English or Spanish or French I’d expect my team to win it, but I was just delighted to support my own country for once, and not the team I’d drawn in the office sweepstake, or the Republic of Ireland because Jack was my favourite Charlton and I like Guinness.
I am an incredibly young looking 40 and – as painful as it must be for Scotland fans, starved of seeing their team at a tournament for 23 years – have vivid memories of Scotland at Italia ’90, Euro ’92, Euro ’96 and France ’98. People under 50 remember Archie Gemmill’s goal against Holland.
This was different. If you remember Wales reaching the last eight of the 1958 World Cup, you probably did National Service and remember a time when the Times gossip column was about bishops. A tournament in which I expected Wales to make up the numbers became a fantasy, as a love affair between the squad and fans coalesced into something quite special.
Not only did we have one of Europe’s top players in Gareth Bale, he approached playing for his country with the enthusiasm of the 40 or so Welsh fans who made the long trip to Chisinau to watch us lose 3-2 to Moldova in 1994. But all the players did. And that squad, heroes to a man, seemed to be a fabulous, likeable representation of modern Welshness. Bilingual, diverse, down to earth and unfailingly polite.
You hear platitudes about certain players being “fans’ representatives on the pitch”, but I could relate to every one of our team. And when Chris Gunter did his famous “chin up” sign to the Wales end after we’d lost the second group game to England in Lens, I felt that they related to us too. My school used to play Ben Davies’s and Joe Allen’s schools at rugby. My old flatmate Rhodri was at school with Aaron Ramsey. In the era of the millionaire footballer, it was like 11 fans had been plucked from the stands and somehow hammered Russia 3-0. We loved them, and, unburdened from expectation, they played as if they didn’t have a care in the world.
Wales was also being put on the map in a way only football can manage. The quarter-final against Belgium was the most viewed game of the tournament, and suddenly people from other countries knew about Wales, without us having to resort to “Anthony Hopkins …? Catherine Zeta Jones …? OK, if you look at England, Liverpool, yes, the Beatles … it’s on the left.”
I thought we did our part as fans, as well. The French newspaper L’Équipe wrote: “A hymn to give you goosebumps, neverending singing and the impression all you can see is red: the show was also in the stands, yesterday at Bordeaux, where Wales beat Slovakia (2-1) in its first major tournament for 58 years.”
I can’t wait for Euro 2020. Two tournaments in a row seemed inconceivable for most of my lifetime. It won’t be like France, but, no matter what happens, I’m going to enjoy every second.
• Elis James will be writing for the Guardian through Euro 2020