Today decides whether or not Wales can reach a first major tournament final with victory over Portugal. Real Madrid stars Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo will enter opposing dressing rooms in Lyon and their tussle has been much the topic of conversation. Portugal are yet to win in 90 minutes at the France finals, while Wales brushed aside world No 2 side Belgium and also recorded wins against Northern Ireland, Russia and Slovakia earlier in the tournament.
Wales have truly shocked the world with their entertaining team performances against some of the best international sides. The motto of Welsh football and perhaps the greatest reason behind their success can be found beneath the rising red dragon on the Football Association of Wales crest. ‘Gorau chwarae, cyd chwarae’ can be loosely translated as ‘the best play is team play’. The national association, formed in 1876 and is the third-oldest in the world and truly epitomises the collective excellence and wellbeing of the team as the key focus for their football. It is evident that under Chris Coleman the Welsh team have been able to cultivate an undoubted team spirit, a strong sense of loyalty and belief in one another and their nation which unites each and every player, regardless of individual capabilities and achievements.
This deep sense of team purpose and motivation to do it for one another is no more emphasised by Bale himself. “It’s not just about two players, it’s about two nations in a semi-final, 11 men against 11 men,” Bale told reporters on Monday. “At the crucial times we’ve come up with the goods. We’re still joking around and having a laugh. We’re not feeling the pressure. There’s no fear in the group.” He added. Asked whether he was better than Ronaldo, Bale said: “It’s not for me to decide. For me it’s not important. It’s just important how I perform for my team. If I can help my team win a game, that’s all I need.” It is clear that his focus is not on the individual.
Chartered Psychologist Steven Sylvester believes Wales have an extremely strong chance in today’s fixture. “We can truly see their togetherness and conviction as a band of brothers. They are clearly paying attention to being the best team they can be. Their unity throughout the tournament has been an amazing thing to watch.” Sylvester said. “What I think is vital to their success is how they react to adversity. They are so excited in being on a major international stage that they view everything that happens to be a bonus. Consequently losing matches only serves to enable learning.” Sylvester pinpoints their 2-1 defeat to England in the group stages as a prime example of this. “The team looked resilient after the defeat with an expressed desire to build on the performance for the following match. Sylvester believes this readiness to generate new learning will help Wales perform freely even without the influential presence of top player, Ramsey. “We came here to do a job. I think we’ve grown throughout the tournament.” Bale said, reflecting on his experience at the Euros, highlighting both his and his teammates belief that they are developing as a force to be reckoned with. Clearly, they feel momentum going into this semi-final clash.
What is more, Sylvester believes that Coleman’s leadership has inspired players, especially Bale, to focus on the collective excellence of the team in order to play fearless football. “They are open vessels engaging with one another and taking time to look at themselves as a group. Such a way of being means they are not afraid of calling each other out and working collaboratively to achieve the best performance they can as a team.” In addition to this, Sylvester thinks that the consistency of the Welsh team is another key factor. Having the positive emotion of excitement enables an attacking team spirit, which helped them deal with the likes of Belgium. “We have seen a consistent pattern of play. The team move the ball fluidly and this is testament to thorough preparation and a desire to play to the best of their ability.” The perfect example of this was Robson-Kanu stand out goal-of-the-tournament against Belgium and was so special for the team and the nation.
“The Welsh players are simply having fun, relishing the opportunity to play alongside one another for their country. As Bale happily pointed out, “the team is the star. We are all together. We all work as one. We all run, tackle and fight for each other.” It has been obvious throughout the Euros the teams who look more individual and don’t appear to be having the same level of fun. Perhaps the extreme focus on the need to win inhibits high quality players to express themselves freely.” Sylvester believes Portugal may also carry such a mindset and it may prove costly when they face a side such as Wales.
“Finally, the Welsh team appears to be drawing on a deeper personal meaning following the tragic death of their former Manager Gary Speed. They certainly come across as the team wanting to doing something special”.
“Our fate is in our own hands and if you’d given us this at the start of the tournament, we would have taken it,” said Bale. “The nation is behind us. We’ll try to embrace the occasion.”
The tale of the Portuguese side tells a very different story. They have reached the semi finals without winning a game in 90 minutes while Ronaldo has also struggled to capture his best form. Manger Fernando Santos maintains a very different mindset to that of Coleman. “Of course, Wales and Iceland are the teams everyone likes, because nobody expected them to get this far.” Santos recently told reporters. “I’m not worried about being the ugly duckling or someone who feels sorry for himself. I’m interested about getting to the final and winning it,” he continued. “It doesn’t bother me or the players at all. Would I like us to be pretty? Yes. But, in between being pretty and being at home, or being ugly and being here, I prefer to be ugly.”
“The Portuguese side seems more centered around winning and avoiding losing – this reflects a win-lose mindset and leads to greater expectations and stress, especially when you are not showing your full potential.” Sylvester adds. For example, this may have been evident in the opening game against Iceland when he appeared to laugh at some poor play when really he was feeling angry. He looked distressed and non-accepting of his errors during this game. Another example, was his penalty miss against Austria – what are the chances of seeing Ronaldo miss a penalty for Real Madrid? Probably never. Maybe the high expectations of a nation are weighing heavily on this individual star.
Ronaldo’s post match interview was also revealing. After the Iceland match he showed his frustration by saying, “Iceland didn’t try anything” and “I thought they’d won the Euros the way they celebrated at the end”. They have a “small mentality and they are not going to do anything in the competition”. These are disappointing comments considering this tiny nation’s achievements throughout the tournament. In addition, perhaps his recent throwing of a journalist’s microphone into a lake is clear indication of his irritation at not dominating the Euros so far. Such closed behaviour shows signs of a degree of self-criticism as well as a total dislike for his errors.
Unfortunately, such closed behaviour as a leader only serves to trigger closed play as a team. As a result their rhythm of play is down. They are being more inconsistent, no more demonstrated by the fact they haven’t won within 90 minutes throughout their whole tournament.” Further, relying on one star player means others don’t feel as valued. “They don’t look like they’re enjoying themselves as a team. The team appears to be waiting for that moment of individual brilliance – something that will spark them into life. To date, Ronaldo has not been able to transfer his club form to his international efforts.” Tonight’s game will give us an insight into whether he can inspire his team to increase their togetherness, purpose and put on a united performance. It remains to be seen which team will take the victory in tonight’s contest.
Will the collective play from Wales prevail or will a moment of individual expertise from Ronaldo make the difference?
Over the past twenty years Sylvester has worked with a number of world champions and elite athletes and found that being selfless was more effective in sustaining high-level performances. His conclusion was that the ‘pursuit of winning for one’s self significantly increases our likelihood that we become selfish as we seek to protect, boost our self-esteem and avoid fear through winning’.
This is outlined in his book DETOX YOUR EGO, which focuses on helping people understand their ego (a sense of self importance) through the withoutEGO philosophy – seven-step process.