Euro 2016: Dance of the Dragons
I don’t care what anybody else says. Gravitational wave discoveries and Brexit news notwithstanding, for me, 2016 has simply been the year of footballing fairy tales. From the most ludicrous to the most wanted and the most loved, we have seen it all.
On the 2nd of May this year, as Tottenham played out a frustrating draw against Chelsea, Leicester City players gathered at striker Jamie Vardy’s house celebrated wildly. They had after all been crowned champions of England, overcoming insurmountable odds and beating all kinds of former champions and traditional heavyweights to lay their hands on the coveted silverware. On most given years, this would have easily become the sporting achievement of note but such has been the spring of surprises at this year’s European football championships that even Leicester’s unbelievable feat has been called into the contest.
Earlier this week, Iceland stunned the entire footballing world, earning more admirers than cynics as they methodically dispatched with Roy Hodgson’s England, one of the pre-tournament favourites. Since the start of these championships, the rugged Vikings from the land way up north and led by skipper Aaron Gunnarsson, have continued to win the hearts and collective well wishes of the entire global footballing fraternity, thanks to their dogged displays of determination on the football pitch. Such has been the support pouring in for the current underdogs of world football that it is now anybody’s guess as to which will be the bigger loss after Iceland’s quarterfinal game: host nation France or miracle mongers Iceland.
Cut to Friday night in the northern French city of Lille on Deûle where the Wales football team rewrote the history books. By overcoming Belgium (the top ranked European nation in the competition) in the highly anticipated quarterfinal clash, the Welsh ascertained a best ever major tournament finish as they made it into the last four. Up next is the might of Portugal who have failed to impress so far and have largely been so dismal that even after making it into the semi-finals, they are yet to register a win in normal time, i.e. within the ninety minutes. Nevertheless, it pits two of the biggest superstars in world football and current strike partners at Real Madrid, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo against each other in what promises to be the footballing equivalent of a Batman Vs Superman match up. Rake in the moolah, UEFA. Rake it in!
Much had been written and talked about the two rival golden generations in the build-up to this most eagerly awaited last eight match-up. Wales had no qualms carrying the underdogs tag prior to kick off. Belgium was after all ranked 24 places above Wales in the FIFA rankings and was the highly favoured pre-tournament favourite. To aid their sleep, the Welsh players had the memory of proving to be the one obstacle the Belgian team failed to remove on their road to qualification for the Euros. Having been drawn in the same qualification group, the two teams clashed twice. Wales ended up with the better half of the deal each time, drawing 0-0 in Brussels and then coming up with the goods to down Belgium 1-0 at Cardiff.
Belgium started the match the brighter of the two and within minutes Radja Nianggolan had let loose one of those ferocious strikes some 30 yards from goal. The ball floated like a butterfly into the top corner stinging Welsh Keeper Hennessey’s palms in the process. Manager Marc Wilmots couldn’t have asked for a better start from his boys. Talisman Hazard had been declared fit to start despite repeated injury scares in the build-up to the match, they had their noses in front and it seemed as though the absence of regulars Thomas Vermaelen and Jan Vertonghen at the back wasn’t going to prove too expensive. All was going well.
To Belgium’s great despair, this was to be the night that the Welsh collective chose, to once and for all, come of age. On a night in which Gareth Bale’s contributions were limited to just a couple of surging runs down the flanks, either side of half-time and a number of defensive interceptions and headers, the Welsh turned in one masterclass of a team effort, one that will be fondly remembered for many many years to come. Channelling the spirits of the likes of Dave Bowen, John Charles and Cliff Jones, Ashley Williams and his men dismantled the top-ranked team in the competition with surgical precision and while their fans could hardly believe it, the shouts of ‘Ole, Ole, Ole’ emanating from the Welsh side of the stadium told their own story.
When the chips were down, it was captain courageous who stepped up. Around the 30 minute mark, the Swansea man turned in a terrific header from a Wales corner to level out the scores and despite some more Welsh dominance, it remained 1-1 going into the break.
The second half was merely a tale of two sensational goals. At the 54 minute mark, Hal Robson-Kanu, who is currently, a free agent turned into HAIL Robson-Kanu as he danced around Belgian right back Meunier and slotted home an immaculate finish past the outstretched arms of Thibaut Courtois. It was a goal crafted with amazing elegance and poise, one of those goals you never get tired of watching. All of a sudden Belgium had it all to do and as the clock ticked down, they started to get more and more desperate. Marouane Fellaini did cause the Welsh defence a few problems with his height and physicality but hey who are we kidding, that dude obviously can’t score! This is information that must have been present with the Welsh defenders. They didn’t look the least bit hassled as Fellaini missed chance after chance although to be fair to Fellaini, one of the chances did come kind of close.
The minutes passed by and on the 86th, Chris Gunter embarked on a long run down the right in what looked like a routine run to get the ball towards the Belgium corner flag. Instead, he chose to cross the ball into the penalty box and Sam Vokes, god bless the man unleashed one of the better headers I’ve seen in recent times to send the ball into the bottom corner of the net thus spelling the end for Belgium in this competition.
It was pandemonium that followed as players and fans alike celebrated this scarcely believable feat; it seemed as though a pitch invasion by the Wales fans was looming. Wales stuck out for the remaining few minutes and just as soon as it had started, it was all over. The dragons had beaten the devils and the entire Wales was celebrating as one, the most famous night in its long and winded footballing history.
Would it perhaps have been different had Belgium not lost two of their key defenders ahead of this all-important clash? Who cares? For now, it suffices to know that come the 6th of July, Chris Coleman and his men will turn up at Lyon for will be without a doubt the greatest sporting occasion in the history of this tiny home nation. Whatever the result be that night and my money is on Wales for that match.,And it is quite certain that in Cardiff, Swansea and the like, celebrations will go on long into the morning.
The Dragons have finally arrived and set the stage on fire!