Wales’ victory over Belgium shows they are ready to compete

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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.

Maybe the biggest key to Saturday’s result however was the defense.  The oldest man on the pitch for Wales, captain Ashley Williams, and Hull’s James Chester were solid in thwarting the Belgium attack.  With Wayne Hennessey in goal, the team has players on defense who, while not on par of a Germany, have experience playing at the highest level; the five starters listed as defenders on the roster have a combined 143 caps, not including Hennessey’s 49.

Wales’ story is one of persistence and growing a team together.  From sitting outside the top 100 in 2011 to potentially in the top ten in the next FIFA rankings, the Wales FA has survived blowouts, deaths, and questionable decisions to become the new hot team in Europe.  How have they done it?  Certainly it’s part luck – Gareth Bale can’t be found everywhere.  But another part of it is growing a core of talented players over three years to the point where they know what it is like to win for club, and after having trained and worked together under tough circumstances, they can now win for country.  The Belgium win is likely an anomaly and Wales will struggle in the Euros.  However, this victory can serve as a marker on the road to a consistent presence in Europe if they can continue to mix luck with a plan in player development that works.

 

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3 Comments

  1. Blue Lou June 16, 2015
  2. Griffiths June 16, 2015
  3. Andyb June 16, 2015

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