After their incredible qualifying campaign, Chris Coleman’s Wales side would have travelled to France for this summer’s Euro 2016 tournament full of confidence, but surely they couldn’t have been prepared for what would happen next.
Spurred on by their talismanic forward Gareth Bale, Wales have seen a defeat against rivals England sandwiched in between two superb victories against Slovakia and Russia. Bale – who scored seven goals in qualifying – has scored three goals in as many games in France, including two free kicks, and those goals have helped Wales to win Group B.
After a sickening late loss to England, Wales knew their closest rivals were in pole position to win the group, yet the Three Lions faltered against Slovakia and opened the door for Wales, whose 3-0 demolition of Russia saw them take top spot.
Whilst a draw would’ve been enough to secure qualification for Wales, they were clearly hoping for more than that and the players were ecstatic as the full time whistle went – but their delight can only have grown in recent days.
With Spain falling to a somewhat surprising defeat against Croatia, they finished second in their group and will play Italy in the next round, in a last 16 game that happens to fall in the same side of the draw as the likes of Germany, England and host nation France.
Wales, meanwhile, will face fellow British underdogs Northern Ireland in the next round, and have been qualified in the same side of the draw as Portugal, Switzerland, Poland, Croatia, Hungary and Belgium.
Yes, Belgium are the number one ranked side in Europe, and yes, Portugal boast the talents of Bale’s Real Madrid teammate Cristiano Ronaldo. Yes, Croatia have some of the most talented midfielders in the tournament in the shape of Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric, and yes, Poland boast Robert Lewandowski.
However, Wales managed a win and a draw against the Belgians in qualifying and – having avoided the world champions, the reigning European champions and the hosts – Wales have, on paper at least, an easier path to the latter stages of the competition.
In Bale they have a truly world class player, but it would be foolish not to mention inspirational captain Ashley Williams, midfield stars Joe Allen and Aaron Ramsey, or the incredible team spirit that embodies everything the squad do.
Their route to the finals captured the imagination of those in the UK and abroad, and with Wales at their first major tournament in 58 years, many are keeping one eye on their results to see how far they can go.
Bale and co. have presented an air of confidence as well as calmness during the tournament, and they all insist that they are looking to go all the way. They will surely be taking inspiration from Greece’s unlikely success in 2004, whilst still taking it one game at a time.
This summer seems to be the tournament of the underdogs, with Iceland, Hungary, Northern Ireland, Slovakia and Wales themselves all reaching the knockout stages, and how apt would it be if an underdog was to win the tournament? And who better than Wales, in their first finals since 1958?