Why I'm rooting for Wales when they play England at Euro 2016
PARIS -- The great myth of journalism is that we're objective, dispassionate observers chronicling events with a kind of weary detachment. Maybe our profession includes such sociopaths; they're probably covering business. But I think lying is a worse sin than caring, and I'm not going to lie: I care about who wins and loses football games. I care especially about international football. And on Thursday, when I go to Lens to watch England play Wales, I expect I will care more than I have ever cared before.
I was born in England to my northern English mum. My dad is a very Welsh Welshman, built like a pit pony. They met at school in Cardiff. We emigrated to Canada when I was young, but most summers we would go back to the places my parents, 40 years later, still refer to as home. They are grateful for what Canada has given us, but emigrating doesn't mean abandoning everything you knew before you boarded that ship or plane. My parents still have accents. Canadians still ask them where they are from.
My ties to Canada are much stronger than theirs, but the children of immigrants, or children who were immigrants, still have divided loyalties. That blood can stay mixed for generations.
My greatest dream is to see Canada play in a World Cup. (I have only vague memories of their -- our -- only appearance, a quick, goalless trip to Mexico in 1986.) On Tuesday in Saint-Etienne, I saw a small band of Canadian fans before Iceland played Portugal. They were dressed like hockey players, complete with helmets, and my heart broke a little seeing them. I couldn't help imagining what it might be like one day to be able to cheer on our country against the world.
But having never really had that chance and no other choice, I've cheered for England. As English fans know well enough, that means I've experienced nothing but disappointment except when I've experienced disgust. I was in South Africa when Robert Green let in his howler against the Americans, and I tried to look like a professional about everything even though I wanted to scream. I was in Brazil when Andrea Pirlo executed his perfect dummy in the jungles of Manaus, and I tried to find beauty in that moment even though Italy ... well, not all our thoughts are for sharing.
On Thursday, however, for the first time in my football-loving life, I will have a choice. Wales have qualified for their -- our -- first European Championship. I can't even begin to tell you what that means. I didn't really know how I would feel when Wales opened against Slovakia, and I surprised myself by how invested I was in that game. I had to choke back tears several times. I was emailing back and forth with my dad, who of course was watching. A Welsh win was almost all I could have asked for; my only remaining wish was that I had been able to see it with my dad.
I imagine he was feeling a little alone, too. Most of my living relatives are Welsh, and almost all of them still live within a few miles of where they were born, in Pembrokeshire. Nobody likes to talk about it, but my dad's leaving was like tearing a hole in a cloth.
They are workers, my Welsh family, butchers and bus drivers and carpenters, and they like to have a smoke and go to the pub. They are warm and generous and extraordinarily emotional people, and I love them very much. When we went back for our summers, most of them were spent in Wales, in the valleys and on the broad flat beaches. The entire family would pack into a single tiny living room the instant we arrived, smothering us in hugs, and I can remember they would pull back and look at us, my brother and sister and me, their nephews and nieces and cousins, like we were aliens. We had tans and sounded American. Our teeth were too white.
They weren't the only ones who had doubts about the connection. I can remember when that union was finally forged inside me for good. I was a teenager, a horrible, know-it-all teenager, and we were in a yard eating and drinking late into the night. One of my uncles was talking about Wales to me, and he kept referring to it as a country. "It's not a country," I said, and I can remember the look on his face so clearly. I still wonder how he didn't give me a smack. I made my argument against Welsh statehood: It's part of a larger kingdom; it doesn't have its own money; it doesn't have a seat at the United Nations. It's more than a province or a state, I allowed. But by any rational definition, it isn't a country.
My uncle drew on his cigarette and calmly explained to me that Wales is, in fact, a country. It has its own language and culture and borders. It has its own rugby team. (I suppose it had a football team back then, too, but nobody talked about it.) What is and isn't a country is also a function of belief, he said. A country is almost spiritual. There is something sovereign about a person's heart, and he reminded me that my heart was half-Welsh, and it was my father's half, my family name's half and that I should never forget it again.
Memory is maybe the most important measure of country. To be Welsh is to be, for the most part, forgotten. The English are the English, the Scottish are the Scottish, the Northern Irish are the Northern Irish. And the Welsh -- the Welsh, if we are thought of by anybody at all, are the distant fourth of four.
My wife has an ancient children's book that she keeps because she thinks it's hysterical: It's an alphabetical list of countries with illustrations and descriptions. By some small miracle, it includes Wales, but all it says is something like, "Wales is filled with odd people," before quickly moving on to Yemen or wherever, like a stranger afraid to make eye contact. The Welsh are nobody you've ever needed to pay any mind.
Not anymore. On Thursday, Wales will play England, and they might even beat them. My family, back home in Pembrokeshire, will crowd into that single tiny living room to see the Welsh dragon fly, and to hear the Welsh anthem ring out across the stadium and around the world. It's called Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau: Land of My Fathers.
I will hear it, too. I will remember what my uncle told me. And I will have no doubt in my heart where I am from or whose side I am on.
Chris Jones is a writer for ESPN FC. He's on Twitter @EnswellJones.