Not since 1958 have Wales qualified for a major international football tournament when competing in the Sweden World Cup of that year and at no time have they ever played in the European Championships. However, their surprise 1-0 victory against Belgium in Friday evening’s Euro 2016 qualifier offers the nation great hope that they could secure a berth in the summer tournament beginning in France next June.
There have been several occasions when Wales have been close to qualifying for a major tournament, most notably when denied a place in the UEFA European Championships of 2004 in Portugal when beaten by Russia in the playoffs. However, the Welsh team appeared in permanent decline when ranked 117th by FIFA in 2011, but that embarrassment was to signal a definite turnaround in the fortunes of the national team.
By that time Gary Speed had been appointed as Head Coach of Wales and within a few months, the team had risen to 45th position in the rankings before the tragic circumstances of Speed’s apparent suicide, aged just 42 years old.
Chris Coleman was tasked with continuing the good work of Speed but an inauspicious World Cup campaign threatened to derail the progress of the Welsh team before the draw was staged for the Euro 2016 qualifiers. Having being allocated Group B alongside Belgium, Israel, Cyprus, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Andorra, Wales are unbeaten after six of the ten groups and now lead the group.
More importantly for Coleman is that Wales have already faced group favourites Belgium twice with a 0-0 draw earned in Brussels during November. Yet it is the 1-0 victory against the Belgians in Cardiff on Friday evening which must have surely clinched a berth for the national team next summer in France. It must have also been a particularly special moment for Gareth Bale in scoring the only goal of the game after enduring a rather frustrating campaign with Real Madrid last season especially with the local Spanish supporters voicing their unfavourable opinions in his direction towards the end of the campaign.
Wales now lead Group B by three points with four games remaining while Andorra and Cyprus will be among their next opponents. A home match against Israel also awaits and Coleman will be aware of his team already winning 3-0 in Haifa earlier this year when Bale notched a brace. With Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey offering vital support in central midfield, Wales would now appear favourites to win the group with an encounter in Bosnia probably offering their most difficult fixture.
The group fixtures finish in October with Wales hosting Andorra in Cardiff and that may become an occasions when the national team finally ends their long absence from major tournaments and it would also be fitting epitaph to the work begun by Gary Speed and maintained by Chris Coleman with the help of the much-maligned Gareth Bale.