Three years ago, I drove across the United Kingdom just to see a soccer match. Stupidly I had planned a vacation during an international break and the one exciting match occurring in the U.K. during that time was the Wales versus Scotland World Cup qualifier. Both countries were languishing near the bottom of their group, but inspired by the intersectional rivalry, I joined the Wales FA and purchased a ticket to sit across from the Wales bench, next to the supporters’ group.
That night, I saw a team in flux. Earlier in the year, Chris Coleman had been appointed manager on the heals of Gary Speed’s sad passing and throughout his tenure his decision-making had seemed questionable and unsure. That night, the Wales team captained by Ashley Williams (Aaron Ramsey having recently been replaced after a few disastrous results) showed some sparks of talent, but it was Gareth Bale who outshone players on both teams. It was the then-Tottenham player who scored both goals for the home side – including one after drawing a penalty for taking a dive in the box – and saved Wales’ slim hopes of qualifying for Europe. However, it was apparent that this squad was too young and lacking enough world-class talent to compete with the major powers in Europe.
Flash forward three years, and Wales is now the talk of the soccer world. With their 1-0 victory over uber-talented Belgium, Wales will likely qualify for their first major international tournament since 1958 as they are now top of their Euro 2016 qualifying group. On Saturday, it was again Gareth Bale providing the goal (his fifth in six qualifiers) but the overall team effort shows the extent of Coleman and the FA’s efforts to build towards the first truly competitive Wales team in decades.
For the Dragons, it of course starts and ends with Bale. One of the best players in the world, he has carried over club form to his country, notching 17 goals in 50 appearances and serving as the key threat during their current run. However, he no longer is alone in his playing abilities. Hal Robson-Kanu is lacking in the goalscoring numbers but provided some teeth in the attack Saturday, and could be a key cog as Wales advances in the tournament. Aaron Ramsey, just 21 when we was named Wales captain years back, is now 24, has excelled for Arsenal, and is a more consistent player for his country due to the frustration of playing out wide for his club. The roster is lined with familiar names for BPL fans like Joe Allen and Joe Ledley, who have come into the prime of their careers.