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Unleashing the dragon: how Wales got so good at football

The Wales team has more than just spirit. Joe Giddens / PA Wire/Press Association Images

Unleashing the dragon: how Wales got so good at football

The exploits of the Welsh football team in Euro 2016 have exceeded the expectations of football experts (and the dreams of many fans).

While some have questioned the sustainability of the team’s success, a closer inspection of their development in recent years reveals that the foundations of this success were firmly laid. Positive psychology, a strong team dynamic and the emergence of a national identity have all helped the team to reach where they are today. As Wales manager Chris Coleman said: “People think the end of this tournament is the end of this journey, but it’s not. It’s part of the journey … This success is part of the learning process.”

Until this year, Wales had not competed at a major international football championship since their World Cup quarter-final exit to a solitary Pelé goal in 1958. There was a brief glimmer of hope that their absence from major tournaments had ended during the Euro 2004 qualifying campaign, only to be extinguished by a 1-0 defeat to Russia over a two-legged play-off fixture.

The fallout of this near miss resulted in the managerial appointment of John Toshack, and while his five-year tenure did not lead to successful qualification for a tournament, the man himself believes it was the starting point for the emergence of the Welsh team. Specifically, during his time at the helm Toshack handed debuts to a number of players who have starred for Wales during Euro 2016 including: Chris Gunter, Gareth Bale, Joe Ledley, Aaron Ramsey, and Joe Allen. Toshack’s willingness to give young talent a chance, has meant that these players entered Euro 2016 with about 270 caps between them, and a considerable amount of international experience.

The underdogs have made it. Mike Egerton/PA Wire/Press Association Images

Though Wales has had experienced and extremely talented players previously – Ian Rush, Neville Southall, Ryan Giggs, for example – none reached the heights that the current crop have over the last six years as a team.

There are potentially a whole host of explanations for this, but the transformation has largely been attributed to the vision of former manager Gary Speed, who revolutionised the team following his appointment in 2010.

Speed’s legacy has certainly continued and arguably improved by Chris Coleman since 2012, and now Wales appear to have broken out of years of transition and perpetual under-achievement to enter a new era in which they are beginning to fulfil their potential.

Team culture

Speed was focused on more than just the game: he brought cultural change to the Football Association of Wales, and professionalised the Wales international setup by reducing the differences in player preparation and support between what they would receive at their clubs and when they were on international duty. He used sport science to strive for the achievement of marginal gains that would allow the team to perform and compete more consistently.

Speed changed the way that players, staff and fans thought about the national team, and under the banner of Gorau Chwarae Cyd Chwarae or “Together Stronger” was able to reconnect the players and staff with national values, adding a wider meaning to their roles as international football players. Just watch the Wales players, coaches and staff sing the national anthem before the match – the incredible pride is undeniable.

The cultural values that were introduced by Speed, and further ingrained by Coleman, have made it clear what is expected of the players both on and off the field, as well as what they must do to contribute to the “team”. From a sport psychology point of view, this clarification of role and identity enhances feelings of ownership and “buy-in”, which in turn strengthens the at times overwhelming spirit of the collective team.

Micropolitics

If there was to be one stand out star on the Wales team at Euro 16, it would be, of course, Gareth Bale. The Real Madrid winger is heralded by fans and experts alike to be one of the best ever footballers to come out of Wales.

But Bale has remained humble throughout the tournament, and Coleman and his support team have consistently played down the potential influence of the world’s most expensive player. Instead, Coleman has time and time again been clear that Wales’s strength lies in the “team” mentality.

Quite often this kind of “micropolitics” gets overlooked when analysing the characteristics of successful sports teams, but Coleman has worked extremely hard to ensure that no big personalities get in the way of a good match. Given the ego-laden nature of football and the personal agendas that players, coaches and support staff may have, it is almost easy for a team to become disjointed – but not on Coleman’s watch.

Make no mistake, Wales was an underdog at this tournament – and Coleman used this to galvanise the team, managing expectations and pressure so that whatever was achieved it became an encouraging success.

Coleman’s leadership has allowed a complete and unquestioning focus to be placed on the team and their strategy – but it could not have been done without the work of Speed and Toshack before him. Great teams cannot be cobbled together overnight, and this one has been years in the making. The team have maintained their principles in the face of set-backs and poor performances. They have not continued to chop and change their approach in attempts to force success or to copy others.

Instead the team have developed their own “Welsh way” and demonstrated an unshakeable belief in that what they are doing is the right way for them.

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