When Hal Robson-Kanu pirouetted away from two Belgian defenders in the quarter-finals of Euro 2016, it became perhaps the most iconic Cruyff turn since the man himself gifted it to the world against Sweden in 1974. In more ways than one, the goal felt like a turning point for Wales.
For a country best known for their exploits on the Rugby field and Tom Jones, dispatching one of the continent’s most formidable football teams gave the nation something new to shout about. What began with the late Gary Speed had culminated a country of just over three million people announcing themselves on a stage their team hadn’t graced for 58 years. In doing so it gave the achievements of Chris Coleman’s side a wonderfully romantic edge: the valiant minnows with a near-palpable team spirit defying the odds and exceeding even their own expectations.
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Five years on, little appears to have changed. On a warm Wednesday evening in Baku, the embers of what had been burning in France half a decade ago were ignited spectacularly once more. They might be under new stewardship now – the stoic former Watford and Sheffield United defender Robert Page – but the core of that side remains; that infectious culture of togetherness and fearlessness seemingly as alive as ever. In beating Turkey, the team many fancied to be the tournament‘s dark horses, Wales may well have established themselves as this year’s surprise package.
And with good reason, too. From Gareth Bale to Aaron Ramsey, Daniel James to Joe Allen, there is much to admire about this Welsh outfit on the pitch. But what really makes Wales an endearing feature of these European Championships, as it was five years ago, is the aura they create off it – an environment of unity and joy cultivated by every member of their squad pulling firmly in the same direction. “Without the drinking, we treated it like a lads’ holiday,” midfielder David Edwards said recently of their historic run to the semi-finals in France. It’s doubtful anyone could conjure a more perfect description of how Wales have embraced major tournaments in recent years.
Perhaps that, in part, explains why their bond with the fans is so strong. There is an ineffaceable sense that, had they not possessed such enviable talent with a football, these players would themselves be bricks in Wales’ famous ‘red wall’. Take Kieffer Moore, for instance, who, while Bale and co. were walking out for a semi-final showdown with Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal, was turning out for Forest Green Rovers in the fifth tier of English football. The former lifeguard has seen it from the other side. He’s experienced life outside the sphere of professional football. So when he popped up with his country’s much-needed equaliser in their opener against Switzerland – red tape wrapped around his head like a character from Street Fighter – it was a moment as beautifully fitting as it was hugely important.
But Moore’s remarkable story is just one of many in a group of fiercely-patriotic, warrior-like Welshmen. So patriotic, in fact, that when the team turns to their fans as they bellow out the national anthem before each game, it is far from a token gesture of acknowledgment. It is, rather, a manifestation of something much deeper and more ingrained: a collective national pride; a mutual adoration for the crest that covers their hearts.
Italy Awaits for Wales
That certainly goes a long way. A week ago, Wales were fancied by many to fall at the first hurdle. As it is, they have virtually guaranteed passage to the Round of 16 and can look forward to going toe to toe with Roberto Mancini’s impressive Italy in Rome on Sunday with little to lose.
In many ways, they have much in common with the Azzurri: passion, determination and an unshakeable willingness to make their nation, and its people proud. Naturally, Wales will go in very much as underdogs. But, then again, haven’t they always been? And with the spirit of Gary Speed pulsing through them, and the red wall – or at least a small portion of it – behind them, who’s to say the Dragons can’t do the unthinkable?
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