Wales make the semi-finals of Euro 2016 after beating Belgium 3-1 making them the first tournament debutants to do so since Sweden in 1992.
27 November 2011.
The Welsh football manager, Gary Speed, is found hanged in his garage at his home in Cheshire leaving behind a devastated wife, two children, and a national football side ranked 116 in the world.
During this period of upheaval and mourning for Welsh football, Chris Coleman, a winner of 32 caps and four goals, was a forgotten man, languishing in the Greek Superleague where he was the manager of Larissa.
On January 19, 2012, days after Coleman quits his role in Greece, the Football Association of Wales (FAW) announced he would become the next manager of Wales.
Things couldn’t have begun any worse for Coleman, who became the first Welsh manager in history to lose his first five games at the controls. He failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup and considered resigning after his side were hammered 6-1 away to Serbia.
Then something changed.
The Welsh national side has had it’s fair share of world-class talent: Mark Hughes, Ian Rush, and Ryan Giggs immediately spring to mind. In 2013, Gareth Bale joined the pack after he became the world’s most expensive footballer after Real Madrid signed him from Tottenham for €100.8 million.
At the same time, Bale was leaving North London another Welsh star was only too glad to be settling in. Aaron Ramsay had finally broken into the Arsenal side and had started to look every inch the player that saw Arsenal and Man Utd locked in a fierce battle for his signature when it became apparent he would leave Cardiff City.
It was also a time when Swansea City was becoming a regular fixture in the Premier League. Swans captain Ashley Williams started to emerge as a solid defender, and Joe Allen had just signed for Liverpool.
It was Belgium who felt the full force of this perfect storm when a Gareth Bale goal, in a 1-0 win, sent the Dragons soaring to the top of the Euro 2016 qualifying group, five points clear of Israel in second place.
Going into that game, Belgium was one of the most talented teams in world football, only losing once in their previous 16 matches, and that defeat was against Argentina in the quarterfinals of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Wales went on to qualify for the finals of Euro 2016 losing only one match through qualification. It was the country’s first major finals since Brazil beat them in the quarterfinals of the 1958 World Cup by a solitary goal scored by a young whippersnapper called Pele.
Wales has a population of 3 million people. It’s tiny. It’s a country that loves rugby – football, not so much. So many talented youngsters are stolen away from football if they show any signs of potential with the ball in their hands as opposed to it being at their feet.
If you are born in Wales and are fortunate to play football for your national team. You know you are going to get stuffed. It goes with the territory. It’s why the Welsh fullback, Neil Taylor, bought tickets to a Beyonce concert due to be held at the same time the knockout phase started in France.
Belgium, on the other hand, is a nation of 11 million souls. Football is their favourite sport. They are ranked #2 in the FIFA World Rankings. They are a Premier League Allstars side with the likes of Eden Hazard, Kevin de Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, Toby Alderweireld, Thibaut Courtois, and Jan Vertonghen in the starting 11. Marouane Fellaini, Christian Benteke, and Moussa Dembele can’t even get into the side.
So there was only one winner when the sides met in the quarterfinals for the right to play a mediocre Portuguese side ripe for the picking in the semi-finals.
It would be Belgium, right?
Both managers had the script; both sets of players read it, and everything seemed to be going to plan when Radka Nainggolan put Belgian ahead with an absolute screamer in the 13th minute.
And then something strange happened. Instead of wilting, Wales grew in stature. Belgium fell deeper and deeper towards Courtois, and the Welsh controlled the game, knocking it about like Barcelona.
I was watching the game with my 72-year old mother in law. She had never looked at a football match before in her life.
“Belgium is the second best team in the world,” I told her.
“Wales must be the best then.” Came her reply.
That’s how good Wales were, and they were rewarded for their 64% possession stat when Ashley Williams thundered home a header in the 31st minute to equalise for his side. It was only the Welsh captain’s second goal of his career, and boy did he celebrate.
Wales didn’t want the first half to end. They were so dominant, and you feared that Belgium would come out in the second half fired up after a bollocking from Marc Wilmots.
And that’s what happened.
Belgium was in the ascendency for the first 10-minutes, until Wales took the lead, after a moment of magic from a man who doesn’t even have a job.
Hal Robson-Kanu is unemployed after being released by his club Reading. That won’t last long after a moment that must rank as the most surreal in his lifetime.
Robson-Kanu was surrounded by three Belgian shirts when he picked the ball up on the penalty spot. There was a Welsh player in acres of space to his left. The whole nation was screaming at him to pass the ball. He didn’t. Instead, he performed a Cruyff turn, leaving all three of them for dead, before putting the ball beyond the despairing dive of the Belgian keeper
“If that would have been Lionel Messi, people would be talking about that for a lifetime.” Said BBC commentator Robbie Savage.
The Welsh fans were in full song. The Belgians were dumbstruck. Fellaini should have equalised in the 74th minute when he headed wide when it looked easier to score, and then a terrible moment for Aaron Ramsey when he received a yellow card meaning should Wales qualify, he would miss the semi-final, joining Ben Davies who also picked up his second yellow card.
Belgium picked up the pace.
Hazard had the conductor’s baton.
Could Wales hang on?
Ben Davies brings Lukaku down in the penalty area, but the referee waves play on.
Ashley Williams brings Nainggolan down in the penalty area, but the referee misses that one also.
There are four minutes to go. Chris Gunter makes a rare charge forward. The whole of Wales is screaming at him to take the ball to the corner flag and defend it with his life. He doesn’t hear any of them. He picks his head up and looks into the box. There is only one Welsh shirt in sight. It’s Sam Volkes. He has touched the ball since coming on. Gunter sends the ball in search of the head of Volkes, and he runs ahead of the Belgian defenders to flick the ball past Courtois to win the game for the Welsh.
Cue the celebrations.
Ashley Williams breaks down in tears such is the enormity of the goal they have just accomplished. Wales has beaten Belgium, and will play Portugal in the semi-finals of Euro 2016.
Can they do a Denmark?
Can they do a Greece?
Can they do the impossible and win Euro 2016?
“Don’t be afraid to dream.” Said Chris Coleman after the game.
And that’s what the whole nation is doing right now.