Wales' loss hurts, but their dream Euro run will never be forgotten
LYON, France -- It's a good hurt. I think that's what I'm supposed to say. It doesn't really feel like it right now. It just feels like hurt. Wales lost.
Their remarkable run at the European Championship is over. They made their first major football semifinal, and they had to face Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal in it. Ronaldo decided Portugal were going to win, so they did, 2-0. He scored the first goal and got the assist on the second, three minutes apart. Sometimes you just run into someone better.
But it sure was nice to spend more than three weeks being from somewhere pretty good.
To understand what this meant to Wales, you need to understand what it's like to be Welsh. It's living in a state of forever being overlooked. It's existing as an afterthought, as either the throw-in or the throw-away, depending on purposes larger than our own. It's being called English so many times that you should probably get over it by now, but it only gets harder to take. It's watching St. David's Day passing without a whisper and then St. Patrick's Day being celebrated like a global holiday. It's having your country constantly confused with large aquatic mammals and made lesser by the comparison.
And at the same time you know, as plainly and obviously as you've ever known anything, that you're from a magical place. Imagine knowing deep down how special you are and still never managing to climb out of the shadows. You can tell yourself that you can be both a gem and a secret, that you don't need an outsider's acknowledgement for what you already know is real to be made true.
But every so often, God, it would be sweet to stand in the sun.
That's what it's like to be Welsh, and this, finally, was one of our rare times in the sun. Thanks to our beautiful team of footballers, thanks to their spirit and the way they played these games, Wales were one of the last few centers of attention.
We weren't just that other one. We were one of the only ones.
And now, as we are so often, we're the fourth of four again.
It's hard to see it right now, but Iceland showed us the way forward earlier this week. The parallels are obvious. Two small countries, two overachieving sets of relatively unknown players, two teams that won by playing like teams. Each earned historic surprise wins: Iceland over England, Wales over Belgium. Each followed those victories with brutal, absolute, conclusive losses. Each said sad, hopeful, predictable things in the immediate aftermath.
Gareth Bale, the heart of Wales, unsurprisingly provided his country's version of the loser's prayer. "It's very disappointing to be so close to the final, but we have to be proud," he said. "This is a proud moment for us, we have achieved a lot. We had pride and passion. The fans are the best in the world, by far. We wish we could have done it for them. ... We've had a taste of it now and we look forward to the future. We don't want to turn up to one tournament. It's about the bigger picture."
The only difference between Iceland and Wales is that Iceland have already gone home, where they were crowned heroes by what seemed their entire country. What reception Wales will receive remains to be seen. They should get everything that Iceland got and more. I am almost certain that they will. Cardiff and Reykjavik aren't so different cities. We aren't such different people.
After Portugal left the field, the Welsh players gathered in front of their corner of supporters, the way Iceland had performed their now-famous Viking clap. The thousands of Welsh here sang their anthem instead. They sang it to open the match, and they sang it after the Portuguese had taken the lead, and they sang it in the 90th minute, and now they sang it again.
It's a beautiful song, and I've probably heard it more in the last few weeks than in the rest of my life combined. It has become more moving and powerful with each passing performance. The stakes have been greater, the charge more purely electrical, the hope and the anxiety growing with every chorus. Every single time I heard that song, something chest-searing was either about to happen or it just had.
Except that last time. That last time, it sounded like a beautiful song again. The stadium was mostly empty. Only the Welsh lingered. There are no more games for them to play, no more train tickets to buy, no more hotels to book. With the final note of that last moving concert, it was over.
Maybe Bale is right, and all of this will happen again soon, maybe as soon as the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Or maybe not. We can believe otherwise, and in some ways we must, but none of us really knows. This might have been it. Wales hadn't played in a major tournament in my lifetime. The previous time was at the World Cup in 1958, when Pele and Brazil knocked them out in the quarters. This time it was at Euro in 2016, when Ronaldo and Portugal knocked them out in the semis.
Now Portugal will go to Paris and play either Germany or France. Wales will go back to their camp in tiny Dinard and take one last look at the sea.
It's all so clear cut. It's all such a muddle.
I'm so grateful. I'm so sad. I'm so proud. I'm so tired. I'm so weightless. I'm so lost. I'm so glad I was here. I'm so sick for home.
I know it hurts.
I know it's going to be OK.
Chris Jones is a writer for ESPN FC. He's on Twitter at @MySecondEmpire