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The real deal? Why Wales could go all the way at Euro 2016

Bale is the vanguard of that golden generation. He is the most expensive footballer in history

Graham Ruthven

Published: Updated:

When Gareth Bale was asked how far Wales could go at Euro 2016 this summer, his response was met with more than a few sniggers. “We can win the whole thing. Why not?” he said. At the time his ambition, while admirable, seemed somewhat naive. With the tournament now at the semi-final stage, that is no longer the case.

Bale and his Wales side are just two games from pulling off the greatest shock in international football since Greece’s triumph in 2004. Not so long ago considered minnows of the European game, the Dragons could now mark their golden generation with some silverware. They are for real, and could win the whole thing.

Bale is the vanguard of that golden generation. He is the most expensive footballer in history, carrying Wales through qualification, through Euro 2016’s group stage and into the semi-finals. Five times Wales have faced their biggest ever game, but Wednesday’s final-four clash with Portugal will be their biggest yet.

It is a winnable game, too. Portugal have made it to the semi-finals without winning a single match in regulation time. It is entirely conceivable that Wales could book their place in Sunday’s final at the Stade de France. These European Championships have been the most open in decades, and Chris Coleman’s side could be the team to benefit most from that.

Wednesday’s match-up in Lyon will produce the most compelling individual duel the tournament has witnessed so far. The ticket will say Wales vs Portugal, but those who turn up are packing their money to see Bale vs Ronaldo, although the former has been keen to stress there will be much more at play.

“It’s not about two players, it’s about two nations in a semi-final, 11 men against 11 men,” said Bale ahead of the final-four fixture. “Everybody knows that really. Of course he’s a fantastic player, everybody knows what he can do.

“But we’ve always spoken about what we do, what we do ourselves as a team. We don’t worry about the opposition. We know a lot of teams we’ve played against have got very good individuals, but for us it’s about the team. If the team performs well, we’re able to shut out a lot of threats.”

Bale is right. Wednesday’s match will be about more than just two players. In fact, Wales must hope that it turns out to be about more than just two players. The Dragons showed against Belgium, when Bale endured his most difficult game of the tournament, that they have the strength to see off even the best opponents.

In Ashley Williams, Wales have one of the most underrated defenders in the European game. Joe Allen has offered a reminder of his ability over the past month, with Hal Robson-Kanu leading the line with presence and authority. Aaron Ramsey will be missed through suspension, but Coleman will find a way to compensate for his absence. Time and again, Wales have proved their doubters wrong.

However, their greatest quality is their unity and cohesion. When Williams scored Wales’s equalizing goal against Belgium, he ran to the bench to celebrate with his coach and teammates.

Robson-Kanu and Sam Vokes did the same for the second and third goals. They are derided as being little more than a one-man team, but that does them a great disservice.

Bale is not even the greatest Welsh success story in France this summer. Coleman is. The head coach, whose managerial background is hardly of any great pedigree, has outsmarted some of European football’s best, and is now plotting his side’s route to the final. “If we go into the next game and think ‘this tournament is so nice… and haven’t we done so well,’ then his lot will turn us over,” he said on Monday.

Wales have provided the most compelling storyline so far at Euro 2016, and it could get more captivating yet. Bale’s pre-tournament ambition might have raised a few eyebrows at the time. Now it seems quite the premonition.