Paris: Gareth Bale has predicted a bright future for Wales following the disappointment of exiting Euro 2016. Wales bowed out of the tournament at the semi-final stage with a 2-0 defeat to Portugal in Lyon on Wednesday night.
Hard luck, mate: Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo comforts Wales' striker Gareth Bale (right) after their Euro 2016 semi-final at the the Parc Olympique Lyonnais Stadium in Decines-Charpieu, Lyon on Wednesday. Portugal won 2-0. Pic/AFP
But Bale hailed the remarkable journey which has seen Wales go from being ranked 117th in the world less than five years ago to reaching the last four of the European Championship. And the Real Madrid insists the determination is there for Wales to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. "To be so close to the final and miss out is disappointing, but we have to be proud of what we've achieved," Bale said.
"It hurts now because it's fresh but we've been on an amazing journey. The whole nation has enjoyed the journey as much as us and it's been amazing, incredible. "Fans, staff, everyone. It's been one of those moments in your life we'll never forget and very special to all of us." Thousands of fans are expected to welcome home Chris Coleman's squad to Cardiff on Friday.
The whole country has been caught up by the team's performances in France — the first time that a Wales side have reached the semi-final of a major competition. But Bale says that the focus is already switching to the World Cup qualifying campaign, which starts with a home game against Moldova in September.
"Our hunger is there more than ever to get back (to major tournaments). There's more improvements from us and come the World Cup qualifiers — which are not too far away — we'll get back to working hard and doing what we do best," the 26-year-old said.
Manager Coleman proud
Coleman expressed his pride at the performance of his players after Wales' elimination was confirmed by two Portugal goals in three minutes at the start of the second half.
Bale's club teammate Cristiano Ronaldo opened the scoring with a towering header before setting up Nani for the second goal.
Bale said: "We can be a better side from it. We've grown in confidence, we've grown in stature and I think we'll be more respected. We said all along we didn't just want to qualify for this tournament, we want to qualify every time. The hunger is there, the spirit is there and we'll take all the positives and go into the next campaign trying to do it again. We always wanted to test ourselves against the best and I think we've done everybody proud — including ourselves. We can hold our heads high and give it a right go again." Wales held their customary huddle at the end of the game in front of their supporters.
Skipper Williams satisfied
They were given an overwhelming reception and skipper Ashley Williams said the Euros had provided a firm foundation on which to build. "We've got to be proud of ourselves. It's such a young squad," the Swansea defender said. "We can't be deflated after this — getting to the semi-finals — because no-one thought we were going to get here. It's such a young team and they're going to have a lot more success. It was a bit of a gee-up really. This isn't the end. It's the start of something massive."