Five years and Hal Robson-Kanus’ brilliant goal against Belgium in a European Championship quarter-final remain indelibly imprinted in the memory of every Welsh man and woman.
Cruyff turned inside the box, hitting two defenders. The cool, clinical finish. In a country’s collective mind, it’s a masterpiece hanging in its central gallery.
What is less clear is what came next. Certainly it was bedlam, carnage, though beer was thrown to heaven, and comrades and relatives were restrained when a strangled cry emptied the lungs. It was a scream that married ecstasy and patriotism and required no translation. In that moment-in-a-lifetime moment, in pubs and lounges from Conwy down to Cardiff, we all felt and thought the same.
It was, and will forever be, a wonderfully blurred, fuzzy loss of any sense, and so naturally, as we inhabited such a rare space, we began to dream. Here was Wales, who have not qualified for a major tournament since 1958 and played the very enthusiastic Belgians out of the park, and the next time was semis. Maybe this magical journey went all the way?
Of course it did not, when Ronaldo and Portugal ended the adventure with a 2-0 victory, and perhaps deep down in the heart of the heart we knew that such a brave exit was our destiny. One of the many admirable traits of a Welsh native is our balance of enormous pride in who we are and where we come from with a pragmatism about our limitations, because after all we are a country with a simple population of three million.
After all, we had all endured a lifetime of almost mishaps and disappointment in the football arena.
So amid the wild festivities and wild optimism as Robson-Kanu ran – as surprised as anyone at his sublime achievement – to the insane embrace of his teammates, there was an inherent understanding that this was as good as it ever went to get to the Welsh national side. It was a historic zenith, and recognizing this in our bones ensured that we had the extra pint or four and hugged our peers, who tightened a little.
EUROS ICONIC MOMENTS ⚽️🏆
A night that still brings goosebumps to everyone @Wales follower 🏴
– ITV Football (@itvfootball) June 11, 2021
Which is nice. As a Welshman, I’m okay with that, even grateful because many followers are not allowed to experience such a crazy extremity. One minute my country was nowhere ranked with a long CV of failure, the next was a West Bromwich Albion striker who had scored only three goals in the championship that season, enchanted an international elite defense and took us to an unprecedented glory.
Yet we are here again, with Wales embarking on another Euro-exploitation, and although I am in my heart aware that the Golden Generation of Bale, Allen and Ramsey are all five years older, and although I accept , that it is impossible we scale these dizzying heights again, I will still renegotiate the terms of my pragmatism.
Granted, it’s inconceivable that Robert Pay’s side will go deep into Euro 2020. The show is frankly ridiculous and realistically just getting out of Group A will be a feat with Italy and the tournament’s ‘dark horses’ Turkey preparing for. to fight for the battle for top two spots and Switzerland stoically and braced to deviate in the last 16 rounds as they always do.
But while thoughts of another semifinal are amazing, it feels so much wrong that this generational collection of talent should go from being heroes to an outsider’s perspective on zeros in such a short time. They certainly deserve one last hurray, even if it is clearly subdued compared to what happened before?
As I said, however, even this will be difficult, for the sake of argument, to reach out of knock-outs as second place followed by a close-fought defeat against probably Denmark. That would be enough. It would be an appropriate submission to a vintage page that caused the Red Wall to break with pride and is now largely undergoing the transition process. But even this feels beyond them.
For since that unforgettable summer, Gareth Bale has been subjected to another five years of wear and tear, tears and injuries, and it never fails to evoke surprise that he is still ‘only’ 31. He is only two months older than Kyle Walker. Hardly a year older than Eden Hazard. Yet he is broken in parts and apparently forever he needs maintenance of this phenomenon, born of pure happiness in the principality, while Joe Allen and Aaron Ramsey are also the wrong side of thirty, the latter as prone to injury and patched Bale .
Elsewhere, their cast is undoubtedly of a lower standard than their 2016 counterparts, though real potential lies in a handful of new stars.
It is this mixture of eroded greatness and untested naivety that must now protect the beloved legacy of the boys of ’16, and although no one expects a repeat, one desperately hopes that the decline is not too serious. To turn the silly imagination into an incredible summer, they deserve a last minute in the sun before they are gone for good.
Read – Euro 2020 – Group A preview