When footage emerged earlier in the week of the Wales squad celebrating England’s ludicrous, though somewhat unsurprising, exit from the European Championships at the hands of Iceland, there was more to the images than age-old Celtic animus. Sure, to see one’s traditionally arrogant, terminally hopeless neighbours dispatched from a major tournament by underdogs sporting the same collectivism that continues to fuel your own progress is, of course, hugely satisfying.
If tears were similarly in short supply around Belfast, Dublin and Glasgow, then glee in the latest English fall can surely be offset by an appreciation of the efforts that Chris Coleman and his charges have made in grabbing by the scruff of its own neck a party no longer reserved for the continent’s yuppie class.
As with Iceland, Wales – the sole home nations survivor – have plunged into these Euros with nary a worry for their own safety. Happy simply to be there, Coleman has set them to realising their own profound pleasure at participating, at last, in the gilded upper reaches of international football. Freed from the yoke of crippling national expectations or talent overload – a significant indicator if France’s stuttering form is to be taken seriously – the Welsh have largely had a right old go from the off.
Boasting a genuine star in Gareth Bale is no insignificant detail. The Real Madrid forward wields an exhilarating talent, all boundless energy and perpetual positivity. He has foraged relentlessly in a sort of advanced freestyle position that sees him positioned at the tip of the spear as well as anywhere else he happens to fancy. His displays in the team’s three victories so far have never been less than central, yet he carries the air of a man straining to prove that he belongs. Behind him, a motley crew of classy sidekicks (Aaron Ramsey), quiet performers (Joe Allen) and players unafraid to compete (Ashley Williams) have accepted their roles with aplomb.
The Bale-inspired win over Russia should not be mitigated by the opposition’s shortcomings. Wales tore through the creaking Russian lines to administer a beating that was betrayed by a score that may well have been higher. In their first game against Slovakia, they played with spirit to overcome an overly aggressive foe. Against Northern Ireland, on Saturday, a match low on quality and high on passion was put away thanks to Bale’s capacity for brilliance. Only when faced with England was the eye taken from the prize, a fit of conservatism inviting that last-gasp winner from Daniel Sturridge.
That a fifth a fixture now beckons is reason enough for celebration, yet it must be remembered that in a tournament arguably undermined by its own expanded (bloated, some might say) 24-team format, Wales are in contention on merit alone. They were amongst the first 16 nations to qualify, the number of places first made available in 1996, and will be deserving of no pats on the head. Taking to the serious business of tournament football has brought rewards so far.
In Belgium, however, the Welsh now seek to handle opponents fresh off the 4-0 annihilation of Hungary, a performance that saw Eden Hazard and company finally slipped the bonds that had seen them flash only in spurts. Equally, with a draw and a win against the Belgians in qualifying, Wales will feel no fear. They have Bale, and that could be more than enough.