For Portugal, is was business as usual. For Wales, it was akin to a child falling to sleep in the Rhondda Valley and waking up in Disneyland. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. These two nations were not meant to meet in such an important match.
Wales has been inspirational. Portugal has been painstakingly dull. Despite that, the bookies made Fernando Santos’s side the favourites. It was understandable. The team so often referred to as the Brazilians from Europe were making their seventh semi-final appearance in a major championship. Wales were making their first.
Portugal lined up to face the Welsh without a single victory in regulation time in five matches. They scored a last minute extra time winner to dump Croatia out in the Round of 16 and needed penalties to oust Poland from the competition one step along the ladder.
Wales, on the other hand, had beaten Slovakia, Russia, and Northern Ireland before the most impressive performance in their history – a 3-1 victory over classy Belgium in the quarterfinals. And it was in that match, in the 75th minute to be exact, that Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey’s reptilian brain told his arm to jerk north to prevent a ball from passing him. The referee booked him. It was his second of the competition. It ruled him out of the most important match of his life. Wales would take on Portugal without one of their best players.
So why did the bookies make Portugal the favourites when, to paraphrase Ian Wright, ‘they had been rubbish’, and Wales had put the Belgians over their knees and spanked them?
They did so, because like me, and lots of other fans of football around the globe, they thought Wales had over achieved. It’s true; Wales had played some outstanding football, but there were also times throughout this tournament when they offered up nothing but dross.
Take the England match for example. The English controlled the ball for large parts of the game without ever threatening the Welsh defence, and in a way, it dumbed Wales down. In their Round of 16 match against Northern Ireland, Michael O’Neill’s side never threatened Wales, and once again it dumbed them down.
Portugal is the same sort of team. They have a stubborn defence. They dive. They play act. They maintain control of the football. And that’s where it ends. There is no drive to push forward and take the game to sides. They don’t have enough quality to hurt teams. But they do a job.
So going into the first of two semi-finals, that was my worry. Would Wales be dumbed down? Would they allow Portugal to control the football and take the fire out of the Dragon’s belly? And the answer was yes.
The first 45 minutes was like every other half of football I had seen Portugal play. It was boring. Football can be the most frustrating of sports, and that’s how the world must have felt after sitting through a half of very few chances.
Portugal controlled the early possession. Wales came into it for a brief 10-minute spell, but it left the ITV commentators with very little to talk about leaving pundit Lee Dixon to use that: ‘Portugal are rubbish’ line once again. Wales might never get a better chance to reach a major final. I hoped that Chris Coleman was telling them this in the changing room at half-time.
And then it was all over in two terrible minutes for the Welsh.
Five minutes after the restart, Portugal swung over a corner kick from the right and Cristiano Ronaldo rose higher than James Chester to thump a header past Wayne Hennessey. It was the Portugal captain’s 10th European Championship goal equalling the record set by the great Michel Platini.
Why was James Chester marking Ronaldo?
As I was pondering that thought Portugal scored a winning second goal two minutes later. Ronaldo mis-hit a shot from the edge of the box. Ashley Williams stepped forward hoping to leave any Portuguese dregs in an offside position; Nani wasn’t, and he poked the ball home.
Wales were shell shocked.
It was the first time that Chris Coleman’s team had conceded two goals in the competition, and you knew in every fragment of bone that Wales were out. That handball in the 75th minute against Belgium robbed Wales of the quality they needed to win this football game. Without Ramsey in the side, Gareth Bale dropped deeper, and the midfield was left passing backwards to James Collins, who kept hoofing the ball towards strikers incapable of making it stick.
It wasn’t the type of football that helped Wales get this far. And it was because Ramsey wasn’t in that engine room. In his place came Andy King. Both King and Collins had played very little football this year and boy did it show. Wales still had plenty of time to get back into the game, and Coleman made three attack-minded substitutions as soon as he could, but players from Milton Keynes Dons, Burnley, and Crystal Palace reserves are not going to win you semi-finals of a major international football contest.
Portugal had done a job on Wales without pulling the car out of the driveway.
Chris Coleman said before the game that his side would have no regrets irrespective of the outcome of the match. He is wrong. It’s difficult to judge Wales failure to progress to the final as a bad thing because reaching the semi-finals is such an astonishing accomplishment. However, these chances don’t come along very often, and you need to know in THE moment of your life that you left everything on that park. Wales didn’t do that.
It will hurt.
It will hurt even more tomorrow when they realise their journey ended like a damp squib, against a side, they were more than capable of beating. And that’s why football can make you want to walk up to an oak tree and stick your head into it.