This isn't supposed to be happening. Ask any honest Wales supporter and they will tell you that just qualifying for this year's European Championships in France was achievement enough. The team had already accomplished more than any other national Welsh team had done since 1958, and progressing from a group containing Russia, Slovakia, and England, was nothing more than a distant possibility. To finish top of the group was a pipe dream, but that's exactly what our team of heroes did. What's happened since has sent the whole country into a state of delirium, made Wales the darlings of the international media, and the talk of the sporting world (1). Everyone loves an underdog.
Wales' reward for finishing top of Group B was an all-British showdown against Northern Ireland, who despite losing to Poland and Germany, had earned a last 16 spot by virtue of a 2-0 win over Ukraine. It was the tie the public wanted, and so it was on to the 48,000-capacity Parc de Princes in Paris on June 25th for our date with destiny. Despite being heavy favourites and having the stronger team on paper, nobody in the Wales camp expected an easy game. Going into the match the Dragons had history on their side, having lost to their opponents just once since 1975, and were fresh from that awe-inspiring, confidence-boosting 3-0 route of Russia in the group stages (2). However, the Northern Irish are a notoriously well organised, resilient outfit who play with a desire and determination that matches our own. Well, almost. They are able to draw players from clubs like Manchester United, West Brom and Southampton, as well as a few hungry young guns, including striker Josh Magennis of Kilmarnock who, incredibly, was once a goalkeeper at Cardiff City.
The game started out a tight, nervy affair. Quite frantic at times, and very few passes being strung together. In all honesty, Northern Ireland probably had the better of the first half, but they couldn't get the breakthrough. Creating goalscoring opportunities is a consistent problem for them. Gareth Bale had a relatively quiet game by his standards, and often seemed content to loiter out on the flanks. Even just doing that he invariably attracts two opposition players to him, effectively taking them out of the game and leaving ten versus nine through the middle. You could argue he only made one telling contribution, but luckily for us that contribution was an exquisite 75th-minute cross that cannoned off Irish defender Gareth McAuley into his own net. They say to be largely anonymous for extended periods of time, then decide the outcome of a match with one moment of brilliance is the sign not of a good player, but a great one. The fortunate own-goal was enough to seal the win and Wales marched on into the last eight of a major tournament for the first time in history.
Meanwhile, England faced minnows Iceland, a country with a population comparable to Coventry who featured Swansea's Gylfi Sigurosson and Cardiff's Aron Gunnarsson within their ranks. Before the game, much of the English media was already looking past Iceland to a potential showdown with France in the next round. Big mistake. It all looked to be going to plan when Wayne Rooney slotted home an early penalty, but within minutes Iceland equalised, and then had the temerity to go ahead. England, for all their huffing and puffing, had no answer. They didn't seem to have a Plan A, never mind a plan B. Predictably, the English media dubbed it the darkest day in English football and vilified the team from all quarters (3). The jokes about England going out of Europe twice in a week came thick and fast, but none were as funny as reports from Scotland claiming that replica Iceland shirts had sold out country-wide and Scottish fans eager to show their allegiance had resorted to wearing carrier bags from Iceland supermarket instead (4). It would be all too easy to continue making more jokes at England's expense. Everybody else is. But this isn't about England, it's about Wales.
After the Three Lions ungraceful exit and the Republic of Ireland predictably bowing out to France, Wales were the only UK representatives left in the competition, and now faced their most difficult test yet. Belgium, a team of precocious superstars ranked the second best footballing outfit in the world. Much like in the run-up to the England and Iceland game, not many observers gave Wales much of a chance. Except the fans. Yes, it's easy to say that now. But it's true. We knew Belgium weren't relishing playing us. Sure, they looked impressive when seeing off Hungary 4-0 in the previous round, but in the qualifying campaign Wales had beaten them at home and drawn with them away. And as Wales were such heavy underdogs, all the pressure was on Belgium.
True to script, the Belgians started strongly and took an early lead. But then, much like in the England v Iceland game, the footballing Gods took the script and threw it out of the window. Far from being overawed, Wales took the game to the Belgians, playing with a poise and purpose, coupled with a fierce intensity rarely seen in international football. It wasn't long before they took the lead through stunning a header by captain Ashley Williams, and shortly after half time Hal Robson Kanu executed a sublime Cruyff-like turn in the Belgian penalty area and blasted the ball into the net to give Wales a deserved lead. With one fluid move, the man who is technically unemployed having been released by Reading at the end of last season managed to send the entire Belgian defence so far the wrong way they probably had to pay to get back into the stadium. The Belgians were shell shocked. They threw men forward in an effort to salvage something, but ran out of ideas long before Sam Vokes of the not-so-mighty Burnley nodded in a third goal as the clock ticked down. In the end, it wasn't even close. To summarise, Belgium, much like England, played like a group of individuals whereas Wales (and Iceland) played as a team. The historic match set a new record in Wales for the biggest ever TV audience for a live sporting event when it was watched by 1.27 million, not far from half the entire population, eclipsing the 1.14 million that watched Wales thrash England 30-3 to clinch the 2013 Six Nations title. If you missed the game you can bask in the glory here (5).
All the talk in the aftermath centred around Welsh pride, passion, and manager Chris Coleman's tactical nous. Qualities so obviously lacking in many other teams. Wales have kept virtually the same starting XI and the same formation for the past two years or more. At first it was a bit sketchy (Serbia 6 Wales 1, anyone?) but the players grew into their roles. Now, they all know what is expected of them, have clearly defined roles, know each other's strengths and weaknesses, and most importantly, are willing to run through brick walls for the cause. Apart from several supremely gifted players, they aren't the most technically proficient side in the world but what they lack in skill they more than make up for with heart and guts. The Belgium result showed the world that Wales are far from a one-man team, and underlined just how far team spirit, self-belief and sheer determination can take you. From a low-point of 117th in the world in August 2011, Wales now stand on the cusp of breaking into the top six, an unbelievable feat (6).
So what's next? Portugal, that's what, a team who, remarkably, Wales have never played in a competitive match. They haven't exactly set the tournament alight, qualifying from their group with three draws, then scraping past Croatia and Poland to make it this far. The Welsh public are not counting any chickens just yet, but the feeling is that Portugal are there for the taking. They are certainly not the force they once were. Despite being ranked tenth in the world, in recent times they have lost to Albania, Russia, Bulgaria and England. As football so often does, the game throws up an intriguing sub-plot as Real Madrid teammates Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale are set to clash. There is certainly an interesting dynamic between the two which some sources suggest isn't always good natured (7). As things stand, statistics show Bale in the ascendancy. Both players pride themselves on free-kicks. Ronaldo's record in major tournaments is taken 41, scored 0. Bale's record is taken 4, scored 2.
Can we beat Portugal and go all the way to the final? Yes, we most certainly can. Wales will again be the underdogs. But we've all seen how they thrive in those situations. As Henry Winter said in The Times, “There is no fear in Welsh hearts. Just desire.”
2016 European championship semi-final:
6th July, Stade de Lyon
Wales v Portugal
Join the campaign to make 6th July a Bank Holiday in Wales!
New Tredegar-born C.M. Saunders began writing in 1997, his early fiction appearing in several small-press titles. Following the publication of his first book, Into the Dragon's Lair – A Supernatural History of Wales (2003), he worked extensively in the freelance market, contributing to over fifty international publications including Fortean Times, Loaded, Record Collector, Nuts. In addition, he has written several novellas and had over thirty short stories published in various magazines, ezines and anthologies. He taught English and creative writing in China for five years, before settling in London where he works as a writer and editor in the sport, fitness and men's lifestyle sectors. He is represented by Media Bitch literary agency.