It’s all too easy to forget now - especially given the amount of memorable moments that Wales have enjoyed since - but, at the start of this Euro 2016 campaign, Chris Coleman was forced to defend Gareth Bale against accusations that he had effectively been getting too big for his boots.
The Real Madrid forward had said the Welsh players have “a lot more passion and pride about us” than England, leading Roy Hodgson to irritatedly dismiss the comments as “disrespectful”.
Coleman’s response is worth relaying again in full, if only because his words have become so much more resonant. It was the first of many genuinely stirring statements that the Welsh manager has offered throughout this tournament.
“I think Gareth meant it in a way of ‘little old Wales’,” Coleman said. “I have said myself, for a long time, we have always settled for too little. We have settled for too long for: ‘We did really well, we nearly got something.’ Or: ‘We nearly got there.’ And we have settled for that. To go that extra mile, we have got to be a bit different to what has gone before. We have got to want it a bit more. We have got to offer a bit more - because, if you want it, you’ve got to give it.
Gareth was simply saying we are a small nation. We are a tight nation. Little things mean more to us than to the bigger nations.
Wales celebrate with their fans
Image credit: Reuters
Wales, however, have already achieved something that would mean so much to some of the biggest nations - not least England. They are semi-finalists, and are so right to want so much more.
A big factor in that feat has been because Coleman set such a tone of carpe diem in that statement. He also set something of a theme of the tournament.
The number of times Coleman mentioned size is apt because that is what so much of Euro 2016 has been about. The tournament’s expansion has dictated so much of the discussion, as well as the very judgement of team performances. It was initially expected that the move to 24 teams would dilute the quality, and that the “real” Euros would only begin by the last 16 or last eight when the smaller countries were sent home.
Instead, it feels quite apt that the bigger championship has fostered one of the competition’s biggest ever achievements, and two of the longest strides made. Iceland blazed a trail in becoming the smallest ever country to reach the quarter-finals of any major international competition, but Wales have been sparked by that Nordic fire and properly exploded.
If it sometimes feels a bit cold to reduce such an achievement down to the numbers, the figures should in this case only add to the romance, as they only emphasise how improbably and thereby rousing this should be. With a population of just 3m, Wales have become the smallest country to ever reach the semi-finals of the European Championships, and the smallest to reach the semi-finals of any tournament since Uruguay 1970.
The South American country’s own World Cup wins in 1930 and 1950 remain two of the international game’s most amazing pieces of alchemy but they did come in a time when the football world was smaller, and not as fully formed in any sense.
That is not the case for Wales now. They are playing in an age of superstars and countries like Germany and Spain possessing the resources to mass-industrialise youth production, but have still given themselves a great chance of becoming the smallest country ever to win the Euros, and smallest to win anything since Uruguay.
Wales' Hal Robson-Kanu celebrates with head coach Chris Coleman after scoring their second goal
Image credit: Reuters
That would quite obviously surpass what Denmark did in 1992 and Greece managed in 2004, but not just in terms of feat. The real key is how they would also surpass both in terms of the football.
Wales certainly haven’t shown the type of “small mentality” deep defending that Cristiano Ronaldo unfairly accused of, nor have they played the kind of pragmatic football that more limited teams usually must. No, instead, they’ve done what Coleman called for. They’ve looked to push their limits.
Sure, Wales have often defended as stoutly as both Denmark and Greece did in those tournaments, but they haven’t been so totally defined by their backlines in the same way. There’s just been more about them, a greater willingness to cut loose and, well, just properly enjoy the occasions. They have scored much more than both, for one.
That could be seen in the way they realised the opportunity to so raucously cut Russia apart with freewheeling football and then, most emphatically, with the way they just overwhelmed Belgium. That they had to come back from Radja Nainggolan’s opening goal made it all the more impressive. It was as if they registered the power of that strike and then gave it back to the Belgians two-fold. There was just such an impressively unhesitating will to the way Hal Robson-Kanu decided to turn three defenders at once, and then Sam Vokes headed home so assertively. There was just no doubt or fear to any of this. There was only utter assurance as Belgium had been swept away.
Wales weren’t just counter-attacking. They were fully stepping up.
They were properly growing into their tournament, as was their manager, who offered yet another emotional address after the game.
To paraphrase Coleman's words, Wales were going that extra mile, they were offering that bit more.
Hal Robson-Kanu scores for Wales against Belgium
Image credit: Reuters
For the semi-final against Portugal, they will unfortunately have a little bit less. Aaron Ramsey and Ben Davies have been taken away from their team through suspension and, because of their distinctive running game, that could take away some of the side's brio.
It might affect how brave they are. Whatever happens, though, it should not affect perceptions of their tournament.
Wales have achieved something massive and, for once, that overused word feels somewhat understated.
Their size hasn’t mattered.