Wales football team touch down to heroes' welcome in Cardiff
The Welsh football squad arrived back on home soil to a heroes’ welcome after defying expectations and winning the hearts of a nation in reaching the semi-finals of .
Tens of thousands lined the streets of Cardiff to catch a glimpse of a group of players that came close to being the first British team to reach a for half a century.
The team appeared through the gates of Cardiff castle, signed autographs and posed for pictures with fans before taking part in an open-top bus parade that ended at Cardiff City Stadium, where a including a set from was staged.
Gareth Doyle, 30, a forestry worker from Pontypridd, was one of the first to bag a place in front of the castle gates, starting point for the bus tour. “I’m not really a football fan but I’m so impressed by what this team has achieved for ,” he said. “They’ve put us on the map. It’s the best.”
A team containing one global superstar in and a share of journeymen pros captivated those who normally have no interest in sport or prefer Wales’s traditional favourite game, rugby.
People like Terry and Lynette King, from , who were also stationed close to the gates. Asked why they were there, Terry King, 70, said simply: “We’re Welsh.” His wife, 67, added: “We’ve always been rugby fans and that is still our national game. But what this team has achieved means that football will be up there too. We’re so proud of the boys.”
Normally a union flag flies from the ramparts of the castle alongside Welsh dragons. On Friday the flags and banners were wall-to-wall Welsh. Beneath them, games of football broke out with the castle walls providing a convenient goal.
“This team has captivated everyone,” said Mari Jones, from Newport, who had brought her niece Molly, 10, to see the team. “This motto ‘together stronger’ seems so right. In our street I’ve seen many more kids than ever before playing football. I think they’ve inspired a whole new generation.”
Officer workers leaned out of windows, shop workers left their posts, builders set down their tools to watch the parade. A pair of elderly women in wheelchairs, one clutching a sign reading “I love you Gareth”, had persuaded staff from their care home to push them to a prime spot.
Before their , the country had not reached a major tournament since 1958 when the side lost to Pele’s Brazil in the quarter-final. The Liverpool midfielder said he hoped the class of 2016 would bring about a sea change for the nation.
“We are hoping that this story and journey we have been on will change Welsh football forever,” he said.
Many fans sang the unofficial Welsh anthem of the tournament: “Don’t take me home, please don’t take me home.” It no longer quite made sense but somehow still seemed wholly appropriate.
The people of were thanking the players for the unexpected joy they had given them, while the players were thanking the supporters for their enthusiastic backing.
Earlier, scores of fans were in the arrivals hall at the temporarily renamed Cardiff Bale airport. The players were greeted by the Welsh first minister, Carwyn Jones, who praised them for raising the profile of the country’s football team and the whole nation at a difficult time.
Nancy Plain, 97, received a kiss from . “I nearly lost my voice during the tournament because I was cheering on the boys so much.” she said.
There was one absentee from the victory bus. , whose celebratory dance routines made him a cult figure during the tournament, flew to Ibiza where he will marry his fiancee, Ruby May, on Saturday. He left with the message: “Thank you team Wales. Had a great time and will miss you but I’ve got a wedding to catch.”