Such is the hyperbolic nature of modern-day sports punditry that the Euro 2016 campaign is already being hailed as Welsh football’s finest hour. Win against Northern Ireland, and the formbook suggests they should, and Wales will be into the quarter-finals, on the side of the draw that doesn’t include heavyweights like Spain, Germany, France and Italy.
But this team has a long way to go before it can be compared to the heroes of the 1958 World Cup, the only time before this that Wales had been part of a major tournament. They started with a 1-1 draw against Hungary, who had been beaten finalists four years earlier. Ferenc Puskas and Sandor Kocsis had left after the Soviet invasion of 1956, but another of the legends, Nandor Hidegkuti, captained the team. Jozsef Bozsik, who scored against Wales, was still the midfield general.
Aaron Ramsey makes clever runs from midfield, and is an adept finisher. Pic/AFP
A late equaliser from Mexico’s Jaime Belmonte meant another draw in their next game, and Wales finished off their group engagements with a scoreless draw against Sweden, who would go on to reach the final on home turf. Tied for second place with Hungary on three points, Wales would go on to win their play-off, with second-half goals from Ivor Allchurch and Terry Medwin.
Allchurch was a goalscoring great long before Ian Rush, Mark Hughes and Gareth Bale, but he wasn’t the uncrowned king of that team. That was John Charles, nicknamed The Gentle Giant in Italy, who spent his best years with Leeds United and Juventus.
The quarter-final against Brazil was a tight game, and Wales were left to reflect on the absence of the injured Charles as a 17-year-old prodigy controlled a pass from Didi, pirouetted in the penalty box, and finished smartly. Pele’s first international goal was the only one of the game. For Wales, it would be the start of more than half a century of near misses, and heartbreak in qualification for major events.
With players like Bale, Joe Allen, Ashley Williams and Aaron Ramsey emerging, the corner was turned under the stewardship of Gary Speed, who had won 85 caps in lean times. But Speed tragically committed suicide in November 2011, and it was left to Chris Coleman to rebuild a shattered team.
Bale, who has scored in each game, is central to Welsh hopes of going deeper in the competition, but opponents would be foolish to focus only on him. Ramsey makes clever runs from midfield, and is an adept finisher, while Allen, despite not being a regular starter with Liverpool over the past couple of seasons, is one of the more intelligent midfield prompters in the game.
In Northern Ireland, they will come up against a team with a similarly ferocious work ethic, and strong runners, but Bale’s pace and the creativity in the Welsh midfield should be the difference. Swansea are a mid-table Premiership side, and Cardiff City were relegated two seasons ago, but for the moment, Welsh football is flying high.
In a week when the region voted overwhelmingly to leave the European Union, the football team will hope to extend their stay by at least another week.
Dileep Premachandran is Wisden India’s editor-in-chief
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