Welsh soccer has never produced something that feels this good and isn’t likely to do so again.
Wales defeated Belgium 3-1 on Friday in Lille, France, earning a spot in the semifinals of the 2016 UEFA European Championship. Wales is enjoying its first European Championship appearance so much that it seems the Dragons have no intention of going home.
Belgium will need years for the sting of this disappointment to subside. Radja Nainggolan gave Belgium a lead in the 13th minute on a lightning-bolt goal, and his strike appeared to confirm the Red Devils would live up to their “Golden Generation” tag and reach the last four, as many expected before the tournament began.
But Wales’ urge to realize its own Euro 2016 dream was greater in power and brighter in light than Belgium’s hype machine. Wales captain Ashley Williams, who recovered from a shoulder injury to play in this quarterfinal, tied the game in the 30th minute by heading home a corner kick after Belgium left him criminally unmarked.
In the 55th minute, Hal Robson-Kanu scored a goal that history will remember as one of Euro 2016’s finest. Robson-Kanu’s turn left three defenders for dead inside Belgium’s penalty area, and his finish put his country into the semifinals.
Here’s how Wales beat Belgium and reached dreamland in France:
Defense was Wales’ hallmark during the Euro 2016 qualification campaign, but the Dragons have added goals to their game to devastating effect in France. Russia, Slovakia, Northern Ireland and now Belgium have discovered this the hard way.
Gareth Bale deservedly dominates headlines, having fired Wales to the quarterfinals. Belgium shackled the Wales superstar, but Williams, Robson-Kanu and Vokes filled the void with aplomb. Playmaker Aaron Ramsey deserves much credit for providing two assists and a constant menace, as he has done throughout the tournament.
Belgium’s leaky defense
Head coach Marc Wilmots was hoping his team’s defensive struggles were a thing of the past, as Belgium hadn’t conceded a goal since its loss to Italy in its group-stage opener.
But problems at the back arose again with Williams’ goal, which ended Belgium’s shutout streak at 300 minutes and marked the first goal it has conceded from a winning position at Euro 2016.
After Williams scored, Wales went punch-for-punch with the Red Devils, who were reeling in the absence of starting left back Jan Vertonghen (injury) and center back Thomas Vermaelen (suspensions). Jordan Lukaku, 21, and Jason Denayer, 21, failed to adequately replace the veterans. They bear partial responsibility for each of Wales’ goals and the general lack of assurance on Belgium’s back line.
While Belgium’s defensive problems were most evident at the back, they started higher up the field. Belgium’s attacking stars didn’t provide enough control, pressure or cover to withstand Wales’ charge.
A new standard of British excellence
Soccer was invented in Britain, but the four home nations — England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales — and Ireland haven’t won a major international title since England claimed the 1966 FIFA World Cup on home soil.
England infamously fell to Iceland in the Euro 2016 Round of 16, leaving Wales to represent Great Britain in neighboring France.
Few gave Wales a chance of going far in this tournament, but the Dragons have no time for predictions. They’re united and full of ambition, confidence and spirit. The result is the finest performance from a British team at a World Cup or European Championship in 20 years.
Welsh fans in attendance Friday at Stade Pierre-Mauroy mocked England in song after Robson-Kanu scored. They have every right to do so, as the best Wales team in history has reached a point England marked as its own target at Euro 2016.
Thumbnail photo via YouTube/UEFA.tv