Celebrated Wales to touch green, green grass of home in style
By Neil Robinson
LONDON (Reuters) - Wales has arranged a huge homecoming party for its Euro 2016 team as politicians, actors and sports stars showered Chris Coleman's squad with praise on Thursday despite their semi-final defeat by Portugal.
"Heroes. Every One" said the headline in the Welsh newspaper Western Mail, sentiments widely echoed in media coverage of their exploits in going further than any previous Welsh soccer team at an international tournament.
The team is scheduled to fly home to Cardiff on Friday where they will be met by First Minister Carwyn Jones.
The squad will then take an open-top tour of the Welsh capital with tens of thousands of fans expected to line the streets on a day of national celebration. An evening party for 33,000 fans is also planned in Cardiff City Stadium.
"There is an age-old saying in sport that no-one remembers beaten semi-finalists. Not in this case. No chance," said the South Wales Evening Post.
"Coleman's Class of 2016 will always be the exceptions to that rule, revered for their stunning exploits in reaching this stage and indelibly stamping their name into football folklore."
Jones, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Wales rugby captain Sam Warburton all tweeted praise for the team who, they said, had made people "proud".
Comedian and actor Rob Brydon tweeted: "Doesn't matter. What a team, what an achievement!"
But for some of the team, the journey back to day-to-day reality may be long and bumpy.
Midfielder Joe Allen, acclaimed as one of the stand-out performers in France, returns knowing that he will probably have to leave his club Liverpool to secure first-team football.
Tottenham Hotspur defender Ben Davies, who was suspended for the semi-final, and Leicester City's midfielder Andy King are also on the fringes of their clubs.
Hal Robson-Kanu is currently a free agent although offers are already on the table for a striker whose "Cruyff-like" turn to set up his goal against Belgium in the quarter-final probably changed his life.
The acknowledged stars of the team, Real Madrid's Gareth Bale and Arsenal's Aaron Ramsey, have also been touched by what Bale described as "an amazing journey".
"We want to thank the fans for all the support we have had. They have been absolutely incredible," Bale said.
"We wish we could have done it for them and we'd like to thank all the fans at home and all the ones who have travelled out and behaved themselves. It's been an amazing journey. We look forward to the future."
Bale, the world's most expensive footballer, has been shown to be an unselfish player, determined to put his country first.
Ramsey's reputation has also been enhanced with many observers pointing out that his absence from the semi-final through suspension probably made the difference.
Coleman, an eloquent spokesman and astute tactician, must now plan for the start of the 2018 World Cup campaign which begins in September.
A qualifying group which includes fellow Euro 2016 finalists Austria and Ireland, plus Georgia, Serbia and Moldova does not look easy.
But tickets for the home fixtures are already selling fast because of the team's enhanced status in a country previously better known for its passion for rugby union.
(Reporting by Neil Robinson. Editing by Adrian Warner)