Euro 2016 - Wales and Chris Coleman have shown anything is possible when you dare to dream
Wales’s success at Euro 2016 has stemmed from them embracing the role of the underdog and simply daring to dream, writes James Dutton.
“Don't be afraid to have dreams”
Speaking in the aftermath of Wales' remarkable 3-1 win over Belgium, Chris Coleman found the words to sum up the mood of a nation on the brink of history. Wales, a country of 3 million, a country where rugby is king and football a very distant second, has become the smallest population to ever reach the semi-finals of the European Championship.
They are the paupers of British football; where England, Scotland and Northern Ireland have a history to speak of, be it tinged by years of disappointment, hurt and regret, Wales have none. Constantly the laughing stock they are defined by near misses, failures and rank embarrassment, while recent memories are laced with tragedy.
Wales manager Chris Coleman at a press conferenceReuters
A narrow defeat to Yugoslavia denied them a place at the Euros in 1980, and Mike England’s side missed out on two World Cup appearances later that decade thanks to goal difference.
Needing a win against Romania to reach the 1994 World Cup, Paul Bodin smacked a penalty against the crossbar with the scoreline locked at 1-1. The Romanians went on to win 2-1. The remainder of the decade sent Wales into a tailspin and the darkest period in their history under Bobby Gould, before he resigned in disgrace in 1999.
Mark Hughes took Wales to the brink of qualification for Euro 2004, and after a 0-0 draw against Russia in the first-leg play-off confidence was high. An eleven that boasted Ryan Giggs, Gary Speed and John Hartson fell to a 1-0 defeat in the return leg at the Millennium Stadium, and another chapter in Wales’ tragicomic history was writ large.
Wales' Ryan Giggs shoots for goal as Russia's Vadim Evseev closes in onReuters
The optimism that was carried into the qualification campaign for the 2006 World Cup was punctured by Hughes’ departure for Blackburn in the autumn of 2004.
In August 2011 Wales fell to a humiliating world ranking of 117 - the lowest in their history - but within three months they rose an astonishing 72 places. The new boss, Gary Speed, had brought back respectability and optimism, but it was to end in tragedy when he took his own life in November that year.
Chris Coleman, whose last job had been in charge of Greek club Larissa, took over in unimaginable circumstances. The proudest moment of his career proved the most difficult, and a 6-1 defeat against Serbia in October 2012 left him on the brink of resigning.
But embracing the legacy of his late friend has propelled Wales to a point unfathomable in the national consciousness.
58 years have passed since Wales’ previous tournament appearance. Generations of Welsh people have never experienced the cathartic adventure of what is to their English neighbours a biennial right of being.
According to the 2011 census, some 563,000 - 19% - of the Welsh population were aged 65 or over. Born at the latest in 1946, this is the generation that was not only alive but would remember Wales’ previous appearance at a major tournament.
My father was a young lad in small trousers when the great John Charles helped Wales to the quarter-finals of the World Cup in 1958. Injury curtailed his tournament and a 17-year-old Pele brought their Swedish adventure to an end.
After my grandfather passed away five years ago, I no longer have a reference point to this period in Welsh history. I won’t be alone, either. Reaching a major tournament has been a pipe-dream for the overwhelming majority of the Welsh population, but one that felt destined to never have a happy ending.
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The near-misses of 1993 and 2003 are the closest to glory any Welsh football fan has reached in 58 years. By contrast England have been to a major tournament 20 times since. A 2-0 defeat away to Bosnia and Herzegovina felt an appropriate way for Wales to seal their return to the top table of international football.
An arrogance could have taken hold, a "job done" mentality, because for 58 years the goal has only ever been qualification. The majesty of Wales’ Euro 2016 campaign has been consigning that notion to the dustbin.
Coleman, a man with a modest managerial record whose last job in England ended with the sack at Coventry in 2010, has ridden the wave of a nation having the time of its life: “If you work hard enough and you’re not afraid to dream then you’re not afraid to fail.”
Wales’ approach has typified the attitude of its manager, shorn of expectation they have embraced the mentality of the underdog. Anything is possible within that mantra, as both Denmark and Greece have shown in previous Euros, and indeed Leicester in the Premier League last season.
Don’t be afraid to have dreams. They are the words that can ignite a revolution in Welsh football. Whatever happens against Portugal in the semi-final and a final with France or Germany that may await, that is the real victory of the summer of 2016 in the land of the dragon.