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Euro 2020: Wales await Red Wall’s emotional return for Albania friendly

Wales fans at Euro 2016
As Wales reached the Euro 2016 semi-finals, their fans came to be known as the Red Wall

One of the Football of Association of Wales’ better decisions in recent times has been to drop the music piped in during the national anthem. Unconstrained by a pre-recorded soundtrack, a packed Cardiff City Stadium crowd singing ‘Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau’ now inspires an almost religious awe.

But the stands have been empty since November 2019. For too long, Welsh football has been played a cappella.

That will change on Saturday, when a limited number of supporters will return for a match against Albania, Wales’ last before Euro 2020.

Whereas an international friendly against modest opposition might ordinarily be met with indifference, for the 6,500 inside Cardiff City Stadium this will be a homecoming to stir the soul.

While club football has gradually been welcoming fans back, for those who follow Wales, the wait has been longer. At least they are used to waiting – 58 years passed between their team’s first and second appearances at a major tournament.

Wales supporters are a devoted tribe. During the fallow periods – of which there have been many, much longer than the good times – they travelled in their hundreds to obscure locations around the world.

Those journeys, the collective anguish of the many failures and near misses, are why Euro 2016 felt so cathartic, so joyous.

Those hundreds had grown to several thousand and, in France, these now vast swathes of Welsh fans came to be known as the Red Wall.

That mass of red shirts went everywhere with the team until the pandemic struck last year, and Wales have had nothing but empty stands for company since.

Saturday’s match against Albania will be their moment to return, albeit fleetingly.

Wales’ fans have been advised by the Football Association of Wales and Welsh government not to travel to Baku and Rome for their Euros group matches so, for the vast majority, this match will be their only opportunity to cheer on their team before they embark on just a third major tournament in the nation’s history.

“It will be amazing before we go off to the Euros to have that send-off,” says captain Gareth Bale.

“There’s only 6,500 but I’m sure they’ll make it seem like a full stadium.”

Gareth Bale: Wales captain excited for ‘amazing’ return of fans for Albania game

The Red Wall, even with large parts missing, will never have been happier to be at a sparsely-attended friendly, familiar territory for those who followed Wales before the success of recent years.

Bale and other more experienced members of this squad remember the barren spells too. They played through some of them, while the Wales teams of their childhoods seldom got close to qualification.

Chris Gunter, the only man to earn 100 caps for Wales, was a supporter before he was a player, following Cardiff City and Wales home and away. He, perhaps more than any of his team-mates, embodies the profound bond that this Wales side shares with its fans.

In typically self-deprecating fashion, he said in 2016: “Perhaps because I’ve been around for a couple of years and never knocked one in the top corner, I guess I’m as close to a fan as you’re going to get.”

Gunter remains the supporters’ voice on the pitch and he provided one of the enduring images of Euro 2016 when, after an injury-time defeat against England, he gestured to the Wales fans in Lens to keep their chins up.

Chris Gunter
Chris Gunter is one of eight members of Wales’ 2016 squad who remain for Euro 2020

That sea of red will not be with Wales this summer, even if some particularly determined types will absorb the costs and quarantines in order to travel.

It will not be the same as 2016 – nothing will – but when Wales take to the field in Baku and Rome, Gunter will still have the Red Wall in his thoughts.

“There will be a point, maybe the first national anthem, maybe when we score, you probably will be thinking ‘what if the fans were here?’,” he tells BBC Sport Wales.

“We know what it has been like and what it could be like.

“I’ve seen football people say ‘we need the fans’ and how important they are to the players. My feeling is more for them, the fans, really, the effort they put in to get to places that they’re almost not allowed to.

“We’ll still experience the majority of it and it will be them missing out so we’re just hoping that, if things can be organised back home, people can get together and watch it, in fan zones or whatever the situation might be, make the most of it.

“Ultimately, players and fans know that the players are giving everything for the fans, and we know the fans back home will be giving their support in the best way possible.

“That connection will always be there as long as we feel that.”

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