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EURO 2016: Heroic Wales Defeat Belgium To Reach Final Four

Wales EURO 2016
LILLE, FRANCE - JULY 01: Wales celebrate at full-time following the UEFA Euro 2016 Quarter Final match between Wales and Belgium at Stade Pierre-Mauroy on July 1, 2016 in Lille, France. (Photo by Chris Brunskill Ltd/Getty Images)

Following a 0-0 draw in Brussels during the qualifiers in November 2014, Wales opted against an early flight home, instead choosing to make a four-hour journey to visit a memorial to the fallen Welsh soldiers of World War I. The trip not only proved that they were genuine contenders for qualification, but also proof that this Wales squad is a special group of people.

The FAW’s head of public affairs, Ian Gwyn Hughes describes the scene: “It might provoke an image of school visit, yet the maturity and humility of the squad was illustrated that morning where there was just quiet reflection and discussion of the sombre sights rather than the moans and misbehaviour sometimes associated with footballers in terms of public perception.”

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Belgium stood between a Wales side led by Real Madrid‘s Gareth Bale and a dream semi-final against Portugal. Winning a group that contained Slovakia, Russia and England, the Welsh have captured the hearts and imaginations of the world. With a population of only 3 million, the Dragons are competing in their first ever European Championships and had shown incredible togetherness, passion and spirit to arrive in the quarter-finals.

With James Chester and Ben Davies accompanying skipper Ashley Williams to make a central-back-three, Neil Taylor and Chris Gunter played as dynamic full-backs.

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Belgium’s attacking front-four of Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Yannick Carrasco and Romelu Lukaku took the game to the Welsh and set the tone early on. Taylor threw himself in front of two close range attempts by both Carrasco and Lukaku inside the opening 5 minutes and just as Wales began to weather the storm, they were hit with one hell of a punch.

The ball found its way to AS Roma’s Radja Nainggolan and when the 28-year-old connected with a rocket of a strike from 30-yards out, goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey had little chance of keeping it out. A serious contender for goal of the tournament and a sublime start for the Belgians.

“Men of Harlech” was the hymn that rang around the stadium from the passionate Welsh fans, strongly outnumbered, but not to be out-voiced. Their chants were heard and the Dragons found a way back into the game. A whipped Aaron Ramsey corner found the bulldozing Ashley Williams 6-yards out and the defender equalized on the half-hour mark with a bullet header. It was fitting that the leader that has been quite incredible throughout the competition was the one to score and jubilant scenes followed in a 20-plus man pile-on beside Manager Chris Coleman’s dug-out.

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The household names on the Belgium team sheet struggled to find sync with one another and it was Wales who were in control of the tie. As the game unfolded, it became clear that it was a team against a team of individuals.

Ten minutes into the second period, A remarkable, curved Gareth Bale pass found a willing runner in Ramsey and the Arsenal man controlled beautifully before finding Hal Robson-Kanu with his back to goal. The former Reading man feigned to pass to his right before executing a neck-breaking cruyff-turn that almost sent three Belgian defenders out of the stadium to then finish coolly to Thibaut Courtois’ right. Having been released, the 27-year-old target man capped a sensational performance with a breath-taking piece of skill on such a high-profile stage. One would imagine that clubs will be lining up to sign the unemployed striker following the tournament.

As Liverpool’s Joe Allen and Crystal Palace’s Joe Ledley worked tirelessly in the middle, Belgium were becoming increasingly frustrated. Chelsea bound Michy Batshuayi was introduced to the game with Marouane Fellaini and Dries Mertens and the Red Devils threw more and more hopeless balls into areas. The quite heroic Ashley Williams ate up all aerial challenges, demanding the same aggression, hunger and desire from his family-like teammates around him.

With the clock-ticking on, the ‘Taffs’ behind the goal sang their men home and turned the volume up to stratospheric levels when substitute Sam Vokes headed home a glorious Gunter cross from an almost impossible angle in the 85th minute. Wales had done it, they’re in dreamland.

For years they have been the butt of jokes from neighboring countries, but now it is their time. With correct coach education and prioritized youth development, the Welsh Dragon has roared and this squad of 23 have achieved the unachievable by reaching the final four of the continent.

The late, great Gary Speed started this ball rolling and these heroes led by Chris Coleman continue his legacy.

Keep it right here on The Stoppage Time, powered by Azteca Soccer, for more world football news. Stay connected on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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