It was 20 years ago yesterday that Scotland played England in the European Championship finals. You do not have to look too far for echoes of that encounter in the one facing the English against the Welsh in Lens this afternoon.
Euro 2016 may be a rendezvous in France for the English, whereas in 1996 they were à la maison. However, in being pitted against a bordering neighbour in any finals for the first time since then, the rivalry stoked by such circumstances is proving just as acidic.
The sourness has been deliciously marinated because Wales, with a win tucked under their belts following their 2-1 victory over Slovakia, appear under little pressure today compared with opponents who failed to meet expectations in losing a late equaliser to Russia.
That happened, too, in 1996 when England opened with a 1-1 draw to Switzerland as Scotland were buoyed by holding out against the Dutch.
Yet, the fact Scotland regard England as the Auld Enemy means antipathy is a staple ingredient when these countries meet.
It has never felt that way with Wales and England previously, not least, perhaps, because the Welsh haven’t been a contender in failing to qualify for a major tournament since 1958. Galactico Gareth Bale singlehandedly has changed that on the pitch. And, it seems, off it, too, as he has painted England as a “new enemy” for the Welsh. A foe to be detested and, at every available opportunity it has appeared, dissed.
Bale even used the very word “enemy” to describe Roy Hodgson’s team last weekend, as he goaded their Group B opponents before goading them again a couple of times more in recent days.
The Real Madrid forward – whose free-kick opener against the Slovaks allowed him to make an instant impact in the tournament after scoring seven and contributing two assists for the 11 goals in qualification to propel them to France – should really have had a ruddy great big spoon in his hand this past week as he stated his band of brothers in red have “got a lot more passion and pride about us than them. [England]”
“They big themselves up before they’ve done anything,” the world’s most expensive footballer said.
Initially that led to England coach Hodgson describing those comments as “disrespectful,” while England midfielder Jack Wilshere snapped back: “We know that Wales don’t like us,” Wilshere said. “Do we like them? Not really!”
That was the cue for Bale to wave his big spoon triumphantly on Tuesday, saying of England that “it’s good that they bit” at his remarks.
In their press conference yesterday, Hodgson and Rooney weren’t going to get fooled again. Moreover, with concerns about tribalism spilling over into supporter violence after their fans became embroiled with Russian aggressors in Marseille, it would hardly have done for the England manager and captain to follow appeals for calm with incendiary talk.
The 68-year-old normally plays with a straight bat anyway, and it was diplomatic corp stuff from him in the pre-match for a game that could leave England in peril if it doesn’t bring them victory, following the impressive win of last-game opponents Slovakia against Russia yesterday.
Hodgson spoke of the England-Wales encounter as “a game between brothers”. Bale would choose to see the sibling rivalry as akin to Cain and Abel, no doubt.
Heck, uncle Roy even gave an honourable mention to Scotland in discussions over the nature of the confrontation, with wins in the home and away friendlies the teams have played in recent years. England also faced the Republic of Ireland in a British-style friendly encounter under Hodgson last year, but his country’s last game against Wales came the year before his 2012 appointment.
“There was a lot of hype around the Scotland game, like there is around this one, but this is more special,” said Hodgson.
“It’s an important tournament where both sides have worked very hard to qualify and have been looking forward to it for a long time.
“The others were bragging rights situations, against Scotland and Ireland. Tough games, and good games, but this game is different. It’s a tournament and important points are at stake here.”
Hodgson was said to have rolled his eyes when asked if remarks from the Welsh camp were getting under his players’ skin.
“If we really took it seriously and allowed it to affect our concentration, we’d be very ashamed of ourselves,” Hodgson said.
“Talk is talk. Action on the field is action on the field.”
The match is being labelled a “Premier League game on an international stage” given that 19 of the likely starters play in a top flight down south that is regarded as English, but – like the cricket set-up south of the border – is really an England and Wales production given that Swansea City play in it, and Cardiff City did so recently.
“That adds spice and interest,” Hodgson said of the fact most of the players involved in the Stade Bollaert-Delelis today have the same domestic domain.
“That’s something I can only welcome. If anything, it heightens the occasion, rather than lessens it. Many people in Britain are looking forward to this game. We certainly are, and maybe around the world.”
And all of them, Hodgson knows, will be willing on underdog Wales.