Wales vs Portugal reaction: An achievement which eclipses any other Welsh sport has delivered
The rewards belonged to Wales long before the evening started, in the form of all that is now to come.
Some might have said that it was gamble for their football association to have ploughed the £6.8m they secured by qualifying for these championships into being prepared for the games themselves, with a base camp in Brittany that would equip them to the utmost degree. They would not die wondering how it might have been had they given it a really good go in France – that was the logic. And no, they will most certainly not.
The legacy for football from Bridgend to Berriew to Betws-y-coed hardly needs stating. The new 3G pitches, the generation who will want to be the Bales, the Joe Ledleys, the Neil Taylors of their time. But the past month has also delivered the Welsh nation to a new place and taught Europe that it is no adjunct to England, but somewhere capable of delivering qualities we have not seen in the swagger and strut of that bigger nation for years. That is to say: modesty, endeavour, intelligence, individuality, self-expression and – the word that resonated around the Dinard base, day after day these past weeks, fun.
The team, which seemed to have found parity until the sport’s pitifully fine margins destroyed it in the space of three desperate minutes, delivered the spirit of Pays de Galles to the continent and after the desperate insularity of the developments back at home, Britain needed that.
Of course, none of this will ease the sense of desperation which will in time give way to a realisation that this was the summer of all their lives: something that they will quite probably never discover in quite the same way again.
That’s because Wales were playing a side who, by their own new-found standards, were beatable. It was a measure of how far they have come that going up against the world’s 8th ranked team, veterans of seven tournament semi-finals, would have the Wales supporters wrapped in early angst. There could be no relaxed euphoria about being here, involved at a stage of tournament football stage which would have been laughable if you’d put the notion to those who travelled to their faltering start to all this at Andorra, six hours away over the mountains, a little less than two years ago.
They’d hauled the banner which reads ‘When God made Joe Allen he was showing off’ all the way around this country and when he could not quickly find his level it did not augur well. He was booked, and thus limited inside seven minutes.
The absence of the suspended Aaron Ramsey created a large black hole in the heart of the team, just as they had known it would do. Wales were denied the creative fulcrum and intelligence required to break the Portuguese lines.
It was apparent that the contribution required of Bale would need to increase proportionately and it was the hint that he would deliver which eased some noise out of the Welsh support for intermittent first half spells. That was when you felt this night could go either way.
Bale did not dominate the knock-out games against Northern Ireland and the Belgians which had brought Wales this far but was more integral here. And the lesser mortals around him knew intimately the routines to bring the best from him. It was apparent when Ledley held the ball up with two hands as he prepared to take a 20th minute corner that a plan was laid. It was the 10-yard short corner pass at a 45 degree angle to the penalty area for Bale to run to and strike a clipped left-foot shot, which curled a few inches over Rui Patricio’s crossbar.
There were other Bale moments, like the momentary pause and accelerated run down the right, away from Cristiano Ronaldo and down the right, to cross a ball that was cleared.
And behind all of this, the performance of James Collins, the central defender on whom Coleman had staked a lot by playing him in place of the suspended Ben Davies, was proving that everyone shared the esprit de corps. Collins v Ronaldo didn’t sound like a match-up made in heaven for those in Wales. All was fine until Ronaldo span around the back of him and leapt like an eel to score.
The discussion of where all of this fits into the pantheon of Wales’ great achievements is one for the weeks and months ahead , though there is an incredibly strong case to say that for the qualities which have accompanied it, it is peerless. Individuals have certainly telegraphed to the world what Wales represents: Ian Woosnam, winning the 1991 Masters. Joe Calzaghe becoming undisputed to-weight world boxing champion 16 years later. Lynn ‘the Leap’ Davies at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. The great Welsh rugby union sides, of course. They’ll tell you the length and breadth of the valleys that the 1971 Five Nations Grand Slam was the greatest of all.
But all of those were leaders in their fields. None has defied expectation and defined the qualities of a team more than this group and telegraphed what the indefatigable and creative nation stands for. ‘Men of Harlech’ rang out as the seconds counted down. It was still sounding around the stadium and into the night sky, long after the final whistle.