Qualifying for their first tournament in over 60 years, a great deal of hope and expectation followed Wales into the 2016 European Championships, and they didn’t disappoint. Finishing top of their group and reaching the semi-finals was beyond many people’s wildest expectations, with a 3-1 win over Belgium in the Quarters serving as the pinnacle of a triumphant European campaign.
With many attributing most of their recent achievements to their galactico superstar Gareth Bale, Wales have often been coined as a one man team in recent times. However a strong supporting cast and a united team spirit have all been paramount to their success.
Nonetheless, were these accomplishments just a flash in the pan, or will it serve as a building block for Chris Coleman’s men to progress further ahead of the World Cup in 2018? With superstar Bale now leading the frontline, there was real hope and optimism that Wales would be able to qualify for the 2016 European Championships.
However in a group that contained the likes of Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as Belgium, qualification would be far from easy. Securing a 2-1 win over Andorra in the opening game set the precedent for Wales, coming from behind thanks to a Gareth Bale double.
“A strong supporting cast and a united team spirit have all been paramount to their success”
Further wins against Cyprus, Israel and hot favourites to top the group Belgium would ensure that Coleman’s men would finish second in the group, ensuring automatic qualification to the final tournament. Moreover with Cardiff-born Bale scoring 7 out of Wales’ 11 goals in qualifying, as well as assisting 4, it is hard to conceive that the dragons would have qualified without their Real Madrid man.
Having qualified for the finals, Wales would find themselves in a group containing Slovakia, Russia and most notably England. A 2-1 win in their opener against Slovakia gave the dragons real hope of qualifying for the next round, thanks to a dipping free kick from Bale and a scrappy late winner from Hal Robson-Kanu.
Facing England in the next game would also prove to be a mouth-watering encounter. A wonder strike from Gareth Bale just before half time gave Wales a somewhat undeserved lead which they hoped they could hold onto until the final whistle. However their luck would soon change as Jamie Vardy levelled for England just after the break, before Daniel Sturridge would go on to break Welsh hearts with a sublime finish at the near post right at the death.
Unperturbed however, the Welsh spirit and resilience would mean that they would bounce back in their final group game. Goals from Aaron Ramsey, Neil Taylor and Bale would seal a convincing 3-0 win against a lacklustre Russian side who would finish bottom of the group. In addition, on the same night England would only be able to muster a 0-0 draw with Slovakia, consequently meaning that Wales would end up finishing top of the group.
Wales had therefore surpassed many people’s hopes and expectations by qualifying for the next round, and had even got people talking about possibly going as far as the semi finals.
The last 16 saw Wales pitted against the third place finishers of group C Northern Ireland. In a somewhat uninspiring performance Wales still managed to scrape a 1-0 win thanks to a Gareth McAuley own goal in the 75th minute.
The quarter-finals however would see them face a much tougher Belgian side, who boasted a star-studded line up with the likes of Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku just to name a few. The game didn’t get off to the best start when Radja Nianggolan put the Belgians ahead in the 13th minute thanks to a wonder strike from outside the box.
But the Welsh team showed resilience and came back to secure a 3-1 victory thanks to goals from Ashley Williams, Hal Robson-Kanu and Sam Vokes to book their place in the semi final.
“It must be said that their success did rely heavily on the likes of Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale”
However facing Portugal in the semis would prove to be no easy feat, especially without key playmaker Aaron Ramsey who was suspended following a yellow card against Belgium. Portugal would go on to win 2-0 thanks to goals from Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani, therefore bringing Wales’ impressive Euro campaign to an end.
Losing in the semi-final was obviously a disappointment for Chris Coleman’s men but they would leave France with their heads held high, as going that far exceeded many people’s wildest expectations.
Moving forward however, the question needs to be asked as to what the future holds for Coleman and his team. It is true that Wales did perform valiantly at these championships, but it must be said that their success did rely heavily on the likes of Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale. The fact that Wales are beholden to so few begs the question as to how they will cope without these few key players.
If Wales are sure to strengthen and progress they will need a greater spread of top class players in their team, rather than only one or two. On the contrary, their reliance on only a few talented individuals has evidently served them well over recent times, and perhaps not having an equal spread of quality is not necessarily a hindrance, as shown in their impressive display this summer.
Nevertheless the future definitely looks bright for Wales. As long as Gareth Bale stays fit and as long as there’s no internal disputes, it’s fair to say that anything is possible for Chris Coleman and his team.
Their spirit, teamwork and fearless attitude led them to their most successful finish at a major tournament in their history, an achievement which will live long in the memory of Welsh football fans. Thousands lined the streets of Cardiff to greet the players’ return to the Welsh capital.
The World Cup in 2018 will surely prove to an even bigger test than the Euros were, and should they manage to qualify who knows where this next adventure might take them..
Video courtesy of youtube.com