This feature is a part of RETEUROSPECTIVE
You can tell a lot about the narrative of a football match by how the players react at full time. As the final whistle of this quarter-final match in northern France sounded, all 22 players on that pitch were gripped in a state of stupor.
Sam Vokes stood still with his hands on his head, Chris Gunter was visibly awe-struck, while Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne both looked aghast. What the hell had just happened? their expressions seemed to say. Wales had just defeated Belgium, the red-hot tournament favourites featuring some of the best players in the world, to record the finest win in their history.
The players were treated to a rapturous pre-match rendition of the national anthem. As the small quarter of the Stade Pierre-Mauroy occupied by Welsh fans belted out the final line “o bydded i’r heniaith barhau”, the players on the pitch must have felt something special was happening.
Before the match, Chris Coleman had wisely told his players to “stay in the game as long as possible” – and you could see why, as Belgium furiously swarmed over Wales in the early going. A slick passing move in the seventh minute resulted in some last-ditch defending, with Yannick Carrasco forcing Hennessey into a save, before Neil Taylor and James Chester both performed heroics to prevent Hazard from opening the scoring.
It was desperate stuff from Wales in what already felt like a home game for their opponents thanks to Lille’s proximity to the Belgian border. These chances only helped amplify the Belgian decibel levels in the stands.
So it was no surprise really when Radja Nainggolan arrowed one into the top corner from 30 yards after fifteen 15 of play, his venomous strike beating a startled Hennessey for sheer power. Already, it felt difficult for Wales to come back from this.
But come back they did – and in spectacular fashion.
The talisman, Gareth Bale, galloped up and down the flanks, stretching the pitch with his blistering pace, while Aaron Ramsey, who has probably never played a better game than he did on this day, began popping up in spaces. Suddenly, it was Wales in control. Bale hit the side netting and Taylor really should have levelled the scores after 26 minutes.
Five minutes later, though, and it was Ramsey who slyly touched the ball around a defender to Hal Robson-Kanu, whose persistence earnt Wales a succession of corners.
This was Ashley Williams’ 64th cap in a red shirt, and he had scored but a solitary goal in the colours of his country thus far in a friendly at Parc-y-Scarlets against Luxembourg. This night, however, was wrought from the stuff of dreams, so of course it was he that broke free in the box to power Ramsey’s tantalising corner into the Belgian net. Williams celebrated by tearing off to the Wales bench for the first pile-on of the evening: a scene of unbridled joy.
With the scores level, Wales were looking the better team heading into halftime.
Marc Wilmots, rightly concerned by the aerial threat of Williams and the amount of space Ramsey was finding, brought on Marouane Fellaini as a countermeasure, and it seemingly worked for the first ten minutes of the second half as Belgium began in dangerous fashion. Their prolific star up front, Romelu Lukaku, was guilty of missing a golden opportunity, while Hazard fired a snapshot wide.
Unshaken, Wales responded, and words fail to accurately capture what happened next when time stopped in the 55th minute of the game.
Bale clipped a ball long to Ramsey, who held off a Belgian defender before crossing to Robson-Kanu, the man without a club, who loitered just outside the six-yard box. Robson-Kanu ensured he will be remembered in Welsh legend forever when he executed the deftest of Cruyff turns, so flawlessly enacted that Johan himself would have smiled at the feat.
“See you later Meunier, see you later Denayer, see you later Fellaini,” bellowed Robbie Savage over commentary as Robson-Kanu sent a trio of bewildered defenders down the Deûle river and back to Belgium.
The striker managed to stay composed enough to slam the ball past Thibaut Courtois. After the second pile-on, Robson-Kanu became the first Welsh player of the night to hold his face in his hands, unable to comprehend what he had just done. It was the greatest of goals, on the most magnificent of Welsh nights.
In the stands, Belgian supporters were biting their nails. This was their much-vaunted golden generation, so unlike the talented squads that had come before and who had always squandered their chances. Surely, they would not repeat history by crumbling once again. Cruelly, Wales would ensure they would,
Ramsey, once again involved, won a free-kick on the halfway line. Williams knocked the ball right to Chester, who slid the ball down the wing to the most faithful of Welsh servants, Chris Gunter, who finally had the chance to maraud forward after 20 minutes pinned back in his own half by constant Belgium raids.
On the sidelines, Coleman fumed. Gunter shouldn’t be pushing up so high, not now, not when they were this close to history. “Don’t cross that fucking ball, Christopher!”
Coleman’s anger turned to delirium as he didn’t just cross it, but floated it beautifully onto the onrushing head of Sam Vokes, the man heartbroken to be benched for this game but encapsulating everything that made this Welsh team so special. Coleman’s assistant, Osian Roberts, had said “Belgium have the individuals; we have the team”, and here was Vokes in the 86th minute of a quarter-final proving that with a powerful twist of his neck muscles to send the ball into the far corner.
Belgium were done. Stunned. Defeated 3-1.
The Welsh players celebrated their journey that had begun six years earlier with the appointment of the late Gary Speed by roaring “please don’t take me home” with the hordes of fans that had travelled from home.
This was their first appearance at a major tournament since 1958 and they were semi-finalists, the smallest nation to ever achieve such a feat. It might have felt surreal but there was nothing fortuitous about it. Wales had simply beaten Belgium by being better than them.
Just a group of friends who Coleman had told “don’t be afraid to have dreams”, Wales weren’t afraid – and they certainly weren’t going home yet.
By Matthew Gibbs @matthewleuan