There are times when sport can galvanise a nation and provide moments of unbridled joy and ecstasy. Watching the crowds in Cardiff at full-time last night, it was clear that this meant the world to Wales. Forever the underdog and stomped on by England since time immemorial, Welsh football has emerged after 58 years in international wilderness with the St. George’s cross flags flying high. And how!
After negotiating their group and then just squeaking past Northern Ireland in the Round of 16, no one really gave Wales a chance. I mean this was Belgium, ranked #2 in the world, the highest for any European nation, and on top form having scored 8 goals and conceded none in the past 3 games.
And came out all guns blazing. Within a quarter of an hour they were infront via Radja Nainggolan’s thunderous strike from outside the box. The signs looked ominous as Hazard, De Bruyne and co threatened to run away with the game.
The Sum of the Team is greater than the Sum of the Individual Parts:
But one feature of this Wales team is that they stick together through the thick and thin. Critics may claim that they are just a one man team but watching the rest of the first half it was clear that that claim is utterly baseless. Instead of panicking they stuck together with Ashley Williams marshalling his defence ensuring that they didn’t go further behind.
They slowly grew back into the game and on the half hour mark they hit back, Captain fantastic Ashley Williams. Missing their first choice centre backs probably hurt Belgium as the marking from Ramsey’s set piece was terrible and Williams rose highest to head home. After a boring quarterfinal yesterday this was what the tournament needed. An intense first half with chances on both ends and the result was up for grabs.
A moment of magic:
It was Belgium again that emerged stronger after half time but again the Welsh weathered the storm. A moment of brilliance was needed to break the deadlock and it came from an unlikely source. After Ramsey was released by Bale he sent the ball across for Hal Robson Kanu. With three defenders on him it looked like he would hold it up but in a moment of inspiration he pulled off the most beautiful of Cruyff turns beating all of them before slotting home.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Wales seemed to find heroes everywhere. No one expected it and the stadium was stunned. In the words of the Rio Ferdinand, “He’s turned them and sent them out of the stadium. They probably had to buy a ticket to get back in.” Jordan Lukaku and Jason Denayer were left scratching their heads and Wales fans could scarcely contain their joy.
But there was over a half hour remaining, plenty of time for Belgium to hit back.
The Ultimate Team performance:
Belgium came at them with all they had but the Welsh defended like soldiers, ensuring no clear cut chances went their way. Everyone was at the back, even Gareth Bale was putting in his defensive shift. Truly this was a team performance. Interceptions, clearances, tackles, you could see the heart and determination with which they played. This was a team playing for each other, playing for a nation starved of success.
In the 75th minute it was heartbreak for Aaron Ramsey as he was booked for a deliberate handball. This meant he would miss the semi final even if Wales progressed. He would have been forgiven if his head had dropped but he carried on like it was nothing. The team came first.
A Nation on Cloud 9:
Goal scorer Robson Kanu was replaced by Sam Vokes up front with the intention that a target man could hold up the play and run down the clock. But he had other ideas. A fantastic header across goal into the far corner from a ball in from Chris Gunter sealed the result. Vokes hadn’t had as much playing time as he would have wanted but this was another case of Wales finding a hero when they needed it most.
Probably the lasting image that reiterated the Welsh desire to go through was Joe Allen pressing high up the pitch in injury time trying to win the ball back. 3-1 up you could have forgiven them for sitting back and defending but the grit and work ethic of the players was unrivalled. Allen was exemplary all game living up to his moniker of the Welsh Xavi with his immaculate passing and vision.
Full time saw tears of joy in the crowd and the studio as Welshman Dean Saunders emotionally teared up with pride. His parking ticket forgotten. None of the players could put this feeling into words as Chris Coleman summed it up perfectly “Dream! Dare to Dream! 4 years ago I was as far away from this as possible and no one would have thought it possible itself.” The words of a man finally stepping out of the shadows of his predecessor.
A special shout out to the Welsh fans in the stadium. Even though this game was touted as a home game for Belgium (Lille in only miles from the Belgian border), throughout the 90 minutes the Welsh fans made themselves heard. The 12th man of the team, the fans, and this victory was as much about them as the team itself
It was a victory of heart and grit, but also a tactical victory and one that will go down as one of the greatest moments in Euro history.
Indeed seeing his Red Devils put in such a team effort, I’m sure somewhere up there, Gary Speed is looking down with pride.
Balch o Cymru!!!