LYON, France, July 7 – As Gareth Bale and his Wales team-mates bade farewell to Euro 2016, a commonly expressed hope was that their achievements in France would represent a beginning and not an end.
Having waited 58 years to play at a major tournament, Wales made up for lost time in style, topping their group above England and sinking Belgium in the quarter-finals before falling to Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal.
Along the way their songful, good-natured fans won admirers across the continent, leaving the players determined to make sure that they will not have another six decades to wait for another overseas adventure.
“We’ve had a taste of it now and we look forward to the future,” said Real Madrid forward Bale, who set the tone for Wales’s stunning exploits with three goals in the group phase.
“We have confidence. We don’t want to turn up to one tournament. It’s about the bigger picture.”
While the meek nature of Wednesday’s 2-0 defeat by Portugal in Lyon saw Wales’s tournament end with a whimper, the overwhelming emotion was pride.
Both Bale and manager Chris Coleman spoke of how proud they were of the team’s achievements and there was glowing praise in Thursday’s British newspapers.
“You did us proud boys” was the headline in the Daily Mirror, while The Guardian and Daily Express branded Coleman’s valiant players “heroes”.
The reaction from the supporters was equally emphatic.
Donning red T-shirts bearing the words “DIOLCH” and “MERCI” — “thank you” in Welsh and French — Coleman’s players applauded the fans inside the stadium in Lyon after the final whistle and were met with a voluble chorus of: “We love you Wales, we do!”
For observers of European football, the novelty provided by Wales’s fans — and their ubiquitous “Don’t take me home!” chant — was mirrored in potentially career-altering turns by several of the team’s players.
Bale embellished his status as one of the world’s leading players, but Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey — suspended against Portugal — was equally effective.
Hal Robson-Kanu, scorer of crucial goals against Slovakia and Belgium, can expect to find suitors hammering at his door after allowing his contract with second-tier Reading to run down during the tournament.
– ‘Just the start’ –
James Chester, Ben Davies, Chris Gunter, Neil Taylor, Joe Allen and Jonathan Williams are among the other players who will leave France with their reputations enhanced after helping Wales to become the first British side to reach a major tournament semi-final for 20 years.
Coleman’s stock has also soared, but he spoke about the team’s prospects with a relish that suggests he fully intends to be in the dugout when Wales open their 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign at home to Moldova on September 5.
“We’ve done it, we’ve sampled tournament football,” he said.
“There’s nothing like it. Such a healthy, positive vibe, people from different countries…
“I’ve never seen anything like it. We want some more of that. We need some more of that.
“We’ve got to be hungry. Same hunger, same desire, and I think we’ll give the World Cup campaign a hell of a crack.”
With an average age of 26.9, Wales’s squad is unlikely to undergo major surgery by the time the World Cup campaign begins.
The stirring 3-1 win over Belgium in the last eight, meanwhile, will engender belief that Wales can go toe-to-toe with any team in world football, and win.
Looking further ahead, the challenge facing the Football Association of Wales is to ensure that Wales’s France fairytale produces a happy ending that endures.
“The legacy now has to be the kids back home at school going on to develop, the Welsh clubs producing players of their own, homegrown talent,” former Wales striker Nathan Blake told BBC Radio 5 Live.
“I hope this leads to more players emerging who can take us to the European Championship, to the World Cup.
“I hope this is just the start for Wales.”