Wales players have defended their actions in celebrating Iceland’s elimination of England from Euro 2016 after footage of them enjoying the 2-1 victory emerged on social media, claiming the wild scenes were merely expressions of pride at becoming the only side from Britain and Ireland to make the quarter-finals.
“No regrets,” the Reading wing-back Chris Gunter said. “It might have looked slightly over the top but it wasn’t meant that way. We were just ever so proud to be the last home nations team in the tournament and football has a funny way of bringing out emotions. We were written off before a ball was kicked and so were Iceland, so it was only natural for us to celebrate their win.
“We see Iceland as similar to us in terms of a smaller nation doing well. Like us they are here on merit after coming through a really tough qualification group. They didn’t sneak in. They have been doing really well and that’s fantastic for football.”
His fellow defender Neil Taylor said that though the players’ actions were meant to be in private, there was nothing wrong in smaller nations sticking together. “Iceland have been unbelievable in this tournament and that was half of the celebrations,” he said. “Everybody has been cheering them on. The footage was never meant to be shown and I can see how it comes across, but all we were doing was sticking up for another small nation.”
Taylor is one of the players whose plans have been thrown into chaos by Wales’s success at the tournament. As hundreds of their supporters make arrangements on the hoof to stay in France longer than expected, some of the players have been affected too.
Chris Gunter is resigned to missing his brother’s wedding in Mexico while Taylor bought tickets to see Beyoncé in Cardiff some months ago without ever realising he might be otherwise engaged when the concert takes place on Thursday. “To be honest I never even looked at the date. I just thought my wife would like to go to that,” Taylor said. “It was my wife who phoned me to point out that the date might be a problem.”
Gunter’s parents will watch him in Lille on Friday before flying out to join what bits of the wedding party remain in Mexico. “I would have liked to be there and Mark would have loved to have been in France,” the Reading full-back said. “He’s been to every Wales game up to this point so he’s devastated, but it’s his own fault really. Seriously, though, you can’t begin to imagine the trouble our extended stay has caused the family.”
Neither player would have it any other way, however, and Taylor has even started to feel envious of the month-long party the fans have been enjoying. “We don’t get this very often, and we would like to be the start of it becoming the norm,” the Swansea defender said. “I’d love to be a fan watching Wales at this tournament. Their songs are so good we’ve been singing some of them ourselves.”
Taylor does not underestimate Belgium in the quarter-final, even though Wales took four points off them in qualifying. “They have some fantastic players, but when you get this far in a tournament you know you are bound to come up against someone good,” he said.
“We started to believe in ourselves the night we got a result in Belgium. It was a big turning point for us and, together with the win in Cardiff, it proved we can compete at this level. Our record against Belgium is quite good but they are so strong they could put two teams out in this tournament. They have a blessed generation coming through at the moment, they have good players for every position. Sometimes they don’t play as well as you would expect but when, they get it right, as Ireland and Hungary found, they can blow you away.”
Wales have been underdogs up to this point and will not be favourites in Lille, though Taylor admits it is hard to stay under the radar when you have reached a quarter-final. “You get less pressure as underdogs, but if you are quarter-finalists, there is a certain amount that builds up,” he said. “We are not normally the sort of team that worries about the opposition too much but we are in the quarter-finals. This is amazing for us.
“We know if we can perform as well as we have been doing we have a chance but tournament football is about so much more than how you perform. It’s about being able to dig in when you need to, keep the opposition out for long enough. There are no second chances. This is a one-off.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010