Wales have been great. It’s important to start with this statement, and it is true, there has been no more exciting team at Euro 2016. Chris Coleman has worked wonders to build a real team ethos and functional system around two or three top class players in a way that has put bigger nations to shame, notably England and the Belgian side that they conquered to reach the semi-finals.
There is, however, a pretty big ‘but’. It was lost on few that all three Welsh goalscorers in the 3-1 win over Belgium were born in England, something that has never happened in a major tournament before.
Ashley Williams is by far the best English performer at Euro 2016
— BTTSBET (@bttsbet) July 1, 2016
That in itself isn’t really notable, though. In a globalised football world, players and families move around at younger ages and many will have more than one national identity. There is no doubt that this Wales team have bonded together and represented their nation brilliantly. The problem is that the Welsh system has actually done very little to contribute to this.
A player’s place of birth doesn’t really matter in international football, but the location of their football education really does. It isn’t so much a battle of nationalities as a battle of philosophies and grassroots systems – the nations with the best plans and investment will tend to be those who reap success.
— Dylan [Scarbs] (@ScarbsFIFA) July 2, 2016
The obvious comparison is with Iceland, the other successful, small nation at this tournament. Not only was every single member of their squad born in Iceland, but all of them came through the youth system of an Icelandic team. They are the fruits of a wide system of investment into facilities and coaching in the country that is now translating into results on the biggest stage.
There has been little of that investment into the grassroots game in Wales. It may have a semi-professional league, much like Iceland, but the average attendance in the Welsh Premier League last season was just 327. In Iceland it generally gets above four figures.
The anomalies are of course the three professional teams playing in the English league system. Of those players trained in Wales, all came from either Swansea City, Cardiff City or Wrexham. But for more than half of a nation’s squad never to have played club football in the country that they represent seems to take the gloss of the achievement somewhat.
Looking again to Iceland, only midfielders Birkir Bjarnason and Gylfi Sigurdsson have never played a domestic game in Iceland. Both moved to mainland Europe from Icelandic youth academies. Not a single member of the Wales squad has played a game in the Welsh league system.
My hope is that the penny will now drop with the Welsh FA and they will use the increased funds from a successful national team to invest in the nation’s footballing infrastructure.
The only way that Wales can be successful in the future, when this golden generation has retired, will be if they start to produce more of their own players. Only so many good players with Welsh lineage can be found hidden in English academies.
— UpperGwladysBlue (@UpperGwladysBlu) July 1, 2016
None of this should take away from the achievements of Chris Coleman, his players and the fine Welsh fans that flooded Lille for the win over Belgium. But this is an achievement for them, more than an achievement for Welsh football as a whole. It would be great if it leads to more investment into Welsh football, but that should come before the success – not as a result of it.