Wales will be playing the biggest game in their history when they take on Portugal in Lyon on Wednesday after an extraordinary run to the semi-finals at Euro 2016, their only major tournament since 1958.
Wales have been one of the tournament's fairytales, topping a group that included neighbours England, dumping out one of the favourites Belgium with an emphatic 3-1 win in the quarter-finals, and progressing to highs not seen since their famous run at the 1958 World Cup.
Their success was so unexpected it caused a bit of a headache for players. Several had made other plans, assuming they wouldn’t make it past the group stage. Midfielder Joe Ledley was due to get married in Ibiza on July 10 and has now postponed the wedding. Defender Chris Gunter was supposed to be his brother’s best man in Mexico on July 7, but will be giving his speech via Skype (his parents will also be skipping the ceremony, having chosen to watch the game in Lyon instead). And his partner in defence Neil Taylor had to forego tickets he bought for a Beyonce concert in Cardiff.
In memory of Speed
The Dragons have come a long way since the tragic death of their coach, Gary Speed, who was found hanged in his home in 2011 at the age of 42. His childhood friend and fellow coach Chris Coleman took over the work that Speed had just begun with Welsh football, a sport constantly in the shadow of rugby – in which Wales has enjoyed global success – and in a country with a population of just over 3 million.
Speed's progressive methods were starting to pay dividends when he died, a blow to fans who saw the young coach as a role model. He played 85 times for Wales and was its coach for less than a year. At every major game, the Welsh fans still sing in memory of Speed. "There's only one Speedo," goes the chant.
When Coleman took over in January 2012, Wales were ranked by FIFA outside the top 100 teams in the world. They came into Euro 2016 in 26th position and are certain to rise much further following their run to the semifinals.
From the qualifying stages to the Euro finals in France, success has helped make Wales a closely knit squad – right up to their children. After the final whistle, the players regularly bring their kids onto the pitch and let them run around kicking footballs. About 10,000 fans cheered Gareth Bale's three-year-old daughter in Paris when she managed to kick the ball into the net – though tournament organizers have now urged the Welsh players to keep children off the pitch, ostensibly for safety reasons.
Bale vs Ronaldo
Bale is the team's undoubted star, but he is much more of a team player with Wales than he is with Real Madrid. When sporting the red jersey he leads by example, working tirelessly and often helping out in defence. His relationship with Wales could not be more different than that of his club teammate Cristiano Ronaldo with the rest of the Portugal squad. Ronaldo often appears aloof from other players in the national side, though the Welsh will be well aware that he can win games single handedly.
World's most expensive footballers go head to head
Coleman will be counting on midfielder Joe Allen to deliver another outstanding performance. Dubbed the “Welsh Xavi” or “Welsh Pirlo”, Allen took a stranglehold on the Belgian midfield during the quarter-final in Lille. Throughout the tournament, the unflashy, tenacious midfielder has been almost metronomic in his ability to recycle possession and move the ball seamlessly from defence to attack.
But the Welsh manager faces a major selection dilemma with the absence of influential midfielder Aaron Ramsey – who has scored one goal and contributed four assists – and centre-back Ben Davies, both of whom are suspended.
'What have we got to lose?'
Speaking ahead of the Portugal clash, Coleman was adamant he had enough strength in depth, team spirit and tactical ability to overcome the setback. "They are two outstanding players, but it's not like we haven't been without them before," he said. "I have no worries about whoever steps in. I don't worry about these players because they know the drill, what's expected of them, the game plan that won't change."
Whatever happens, the Welsh will have given their fans something to remember. "Just to be here, and to experience this, is something we will all never forget," said life-long Newport County fan Rob Santwris, who organised eight buses to come to France for Wales' Euro 2016 games.
"It's just got better and better with each round, we're like a boxer who keeps getting back up again," Santwris told AFP in Lyon. "It's going to inspire the next generation of footballers back home. (…) In the next 10 years, there'll be the new Gareth Bale or Aaron Ramsey coming through."
If Wales beat Portugal, either hosts France or world champions Germany beckon in the final on Sunday. "It's amazing that we have just got this far and as for the final against France or Germany, what have we got to lose?" Santwris added with a grin.
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AFP)
Date created : 2016-07-06