The last time a Welsh side qualified for a major international tournament, a 17-year old Pele would be their undoing, with a goal from the Brazilian legend knocking Wales out at the quarterfinal stage of the 1958 World Cup.
But Sweden `58 would turn out to be nothing more than an anomaly, and Wales would fail to build upon their achievement. In the decades since, the country has been a case of constant disappointment. Wales’ qualification record over the past few decades is quite barren, to say the least.
WORLD CUP QUALIFYING
EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIP QUALIFYING
This time, however, as Chris Coleman’s squad sits a mere point away from qualification for the 2016 European Championship (matches against Bosnia and Herzegovina and Andorra pending), it seems the “nearly men” will finally fulfill the dreams of a nation.
To truly comprehend the scope of their meteoric rise, we need to flash back again, this time to a moment of tragedy that occurred four years ago and shocked the soccer world. On the morning of Nov. 27, 2011, Wales manager Gary Speed was found dead in his garage hanging from a suspended rope. The death was ruled a suicide, and as a nation mourned, its team found itself in a state of shock.
In Speed’s short tenure at the helm of the Dragons he raised expectations, instilling a sense of discipline and belief into the squad. He named Aaron Ramsey as captain, making him the youngest captain in Welsh history (Ashley Williams would eventually take over that role under Coleman). Wales grinded out some impressive results, including a 4-1 victory over Norway in Speed’s last game in charge. That December, Wales would be branded the “Biggest Movers” by FIFA as their world ranking underwent a massive change: From 117th in August, their lowest ever, to 48th by the end of the year.
If Speed laid the groundwork, then Coleman fixed up the interior, but it wasn’t the most seamless of transitions. The former Fulham manager took seven months to get his first win. In that, time Wales endured some heavy defeats, most notably a 6-1 drubbing at the hands of Serbia. But eventually the tide would begin to turn, and though Wales’ qualification campaign for the 2014 World Cup would end in disappointment (Wales finishing second from bottom in the group), it would provide the necessary experience for their brilliant Euro 2016 run.
Coleman has been able to foster a club-like mentality at Wales. Most international teams play like a series of disjointed limbs, forced together for a couple days every few months. The best performing teams are usually able to transcend this barrier and create tight-knit atmosphere that manifests itself on the pitch.
Compare that to the way some English players have derided their national team experiences as a chore. In an age where players’ wages have exploded and the growth of the club game has dwarfed the international’s, its rare to find the kind of commitment that’s come to define this Wales squad. It’s allowed the Dragons to punch far above their weight, putting together cohesive and organized performances against teams that, on paper, have looked stronger sides.
Much of Wales’ success has been put down to the performances of Gareth Bale. In fact, the Real Madrid star has been so heralded for his goal-winning performances that the monikers “Bales” and “Gareth Wales” have appeared on social media.
By all accounts Bale has been fantastic, and his performances during this campaign have solidified him as Wales’ greatest ever player. Bale has provided the extra bit of class that’s propelled Wales over the top. Without their superstar a lot of these impressive performances may have ended in draws or 1-0 losses, but with Gareth in their ranks, Wales become a dangerous entity.
It’s been beneficial for Bale, too; his time on the field for his country has become a sanctuary, at times, especially during his tense season last campaign in Madrid. There, in the Spanish capital, Bale’s confidence waned, and his decision-making faltered accordingly. On the pitch for Wales, however, he was a different player altogether. With the entire nation behind him, he seemed to propel himself to a higher level.
Moments like this …
… and this …
… have come to define his performances with the national team.
But Bale’s individual quality shouldn’t overshadow what Coleman has been able to do with this squad. When Wales is able to hold Belgium for 180 minutes without conceding, it’s far more than a one-man show.
Captain Ashley Williams has been a stalwart for his country. The no-nonsense Swansea man has galvanized the backline, and his importance to the nation cannot be understated. There’s a reason he’s the captain of the team when the likes of Aaron Ramey and Gareth Bale available. Wales have only allowed two goals through eight games, and their defensive organization has set the tone for everyone else on the pitch.
And if one player truly encapsulates this, it’s Wales striker Hal Rosbon-Kanu. At the club level, the Reading man is admittedly nothing special. but when he dons the colors of his nation, he’s a class apart. Robson-Kanu, has blossomed into a jack-of-all-trades type of attacker for the Dragons, and in many respects he’s the poster boy for “stats can’t tell the whole story.” Robson-Kanu hasn’t scored for Wales in over a year, yet his ingenuity and hard work as a lone striker has been one of the most important facets of Wales’ performance. Whether it’s chasing down a wingback, forcing him into an errant pass, or his tidy play with his back to goal, Robson-Kanu has shone in the majority of Wales’ games that have mostly been tight encounters.
In fact, that’s actually the underlying truth of what’s made this Wales team perform so well. This isn’t Iceland, a squad that’s plied through their opposition with reckless abandon at times. Wales have grinded out results, and they’ve become especially proficient at close victories. In their eight games played so far, only 11 goals total have been scored.
This bodes well for the next summer; while attacking acumen deserves to be applauded, defensive stability is largely more important in big tournaments. If Wales can continue to stifle teams with the talent level that Belgium possesses, they could be in for a deep tournament run, especially with Bale – their explosive weapon that thrives in the biggest moments.
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