Picture the scene – 55 minutes in, Hal Robson-Kanu has just scored a delightful goal to put Wales 2-1 up against Belgium in the quarter finals of EURO 2016. Inn On the Pier in Aberystwyth is full of Wales fans, young and old, overcome with feelings of ecstasy and disbelief. Hands are on heads, nervous laughter can be heard, and the feeling is starting to sink in that something special could be happening. If you thought it couldn’t get any better, you’d be wrong.
Overheard at the bar were two Welsh fans discussing the game. “Half an hour away from the semi-finals, can you believe it?”, one says to the other. The response was a rather expletive-filled command not to jinx it. Wales fans have the propensity not to tempt fate.
Whilst the majority of Wales wakes up pinching themselves (and probably with a few sore heads), you get the feeling that the Welsh camp based in Dinard fully expected this result. Chris Coleman has been a pillar of self-belief throughout the campaign, and his players have gone into the tournament with no fear, full of confidence, and the composure of champions even with the hopes of an entire nation on their shoulders. Speaking after the Round of 16 win over Northern Ireland, Coleman said “I’m not sitting here pinching myself thinking ‘how has this happened’, it’s happened because we are good enough to be here”. It’s hard to disagree.
If last night was Wales’ first proper test at this tournament, they passed with flying colours. After Radja Nainggolan’s phenomenal strike early on, the task seemed even more Herculean for a side without championship experience, up against the ‘golden generation’ of Belgian football who reached the quarter finals of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. As much as Belgium were missing stalwarts Vincent Kompany and Jan Vertonghen, the fanatics back in Bruges had high expectations that their proven world-class players could step up. But for the third time in just under two years, the Dragon got the better of the Red Devils.
If a 0-0 draw in Brussels was a step forward, and a 1-0 win at the Cardiff City Stadium was the highlight of qualifying, last night is a landmark victory in European football. Not just Welsh football, European. In my last article I said it was time to take Wales seriously, and they certainly proved me right.
But it’s not just the result that was spectacular – the manner of victory and the quality of performance were outstanding. Chris Coleman’s tactics were spot on, and in my opinion last night was one of the most convincing wins in this tournament so far. A lot has been said at this tournament about team play over individuals, and it was evident once again. Whilst Belgium’s individual players are of undoubted quality, there was very little chemistry in their play. They looked scared, crumbling under the weight of pressure that has been building and building over years of promise and expectation. This was Belgium’s fight-or-flight moment, and unfortunately for them they froze in the headlights.
While the Belgian individuals lick their wounds and feel sorry for themselves, the Welsh team spirit and belief grows and grows. GORAU CHWARAE CYD CHWARAE is emblazoned underneath every Welsh crest, and the literal translation of “team play is the best play” sums up this campaign for Wales. The belief is evident on the pitch, from the players belting out Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, to the incredible defending by Hennessey and Taylor in the 7th minute, to the ludicrous celebrations when Sam Vokes – a Championship winner with Burnley – nodded the winner to send Welsh fans into dreamland.
The media focus on Wales has always been how Gareth Bale will perform. But such is the togetherness of the team and the humility of the world’s most expensive player when wearing his nation’s colours, Bale plays for the name on the front of his shirt rather than the name on the back. It took Bale eight minutes to get on the ball, and he did not add to his assists or goals tally, but his commitment to the team and Chris Coleman’s tactics is extraordinary, as it is throughout the entire squad.
It is hard to focus on the individuals when the team performance was so exemplary, but notably; Ashley Williams shook off a shoulder injury to put in another titanic shift as captain, Ben Davies and James Chester produced world-class performances, Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen were full of running as per usual, and Hal Robson-Kanu led the line with classy forward play which will leave officials at Reading’s Madejski Stadium scratching their heads as to why they let him go.
It is easy to fall in love with Wales’ fairytale – everyone will remember where they were when Robson-Kanu did a Cruyff turn to set Wales on their way whilst leaving three Belgian defenders dumbfounded, before Chris Gunter whipped in a beautiful cross for Sam Vokes to head in a third. Wales should remind every football romantic of playing down the park as a kid, trying things no-one would expect, enjoying every kick of the ball before the sunset brought an end to proceedings – and the feeling is starting to grow amongst the footballing community that the Welsh sunset is getting later and later as EURO 2016 draws to a close.
Chris Coleman believes. The Wales players believe. It begs the question, why not? Why can’t Wales beat Portugal, when club-mates Bale and Ronaldo face-off for the first time? Why can’t the tiny little principality, forgotten by international football for so long, belittled as the country just there to make up the numbers, march on to Paris next Sunday and do the unthinkable?
It is the year of the underdog…