Wales could hear the call of history. Not since the 1958 World Cup had they reached the semi-finals of a major tournament and the challenge was to bring those sepia-tinted images up to date. How they answered it on a night that will surely go down as their finest on a football field.
It had looked grim for the opening 25 minutes when Belgium, star-studded Belgium, came at them from all angles and at pace. Radja Nainggolan’s rasping drive from distance felt as though it might be the prompt for a rout.
But this Wales team write their own scripts. They have been driven this far by a ravenous spirit; they are a bunch of mates playing together and they refused to buckle. Instead, they drew.
Aaron Ramsey was magnificent, eclipsing even Gareth Bale to engineer the comeback and the heart-breaking aspect was that will miss the semi-final against Portugal through suspension. He was booked for handball. Ben Davies will also miss Portugal for a second yellow card.
The defining moment was Hal Robson-Kanu’s goal that put Wales in front, when he threw Thomas Meunier and the substitute, Marouane Fellaini – together with Jason Denayer behind them – with a jaw-dropping Cruyff-turn before shooting past Thibaut Courtois.
But this was a triumph of the collective, and one to give Belgium nightmares. Marc Wilmots’s team had taken apart Republic of Ireland and Hungary earlier in the tournament but the road for them leads home. Wales equalized through the captain, Ashley Williams, and they rounded off a famous night with a thumping header from the substitute, Sam Vokes.
It was the biggest game in the history of Welsh football. Bar none. Chris Coleman had billed it as such before adding he meant “no disrespect” to the 1958 team. Coleman had recalled the well-known story about how the boys from that World Cup had returned home to be asked where they had been. On holiday?
This time, the eyes of Wales were on Lille. It had felt like a home fixture for Belgium, given the proximity of their border and unsurprisingly they had ten of thousands of supporters. But Coleman’s team could feel the backing from those under the banner of the dragon who had made it and all of those back at home. The rendition of the Wales anthem was stirring.
Belgium began at breakneck pace. They had the look of a team who meant business. The depth of talent in their ranks was illustrated by a glance at their substitutes. Players like Dries Mertens, Divock Origi, Mousa Dembélé and Christian Benteke had to kick their heels. Dembélé was not selected to play for a single minute during Belgium’s qualification, which is a fact that needs time to sink in.
Wales’s problems at the outset centered on Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Yannick Carrasco, the line of three behind the striker, Romelu Lukaku. De Bruyne, in the No10’s role, was the greatest menace and he reminded his audience of why he is one of Europe’s best. His acceleration was matched by the fizz of his passing.
Ben Davies and Chris Gunter were booked for early fouls on him and had James Chester cautioned for a trip on Romelu Lukaku before the midway point of the first-half. It was a torrid start for them and, at that point, it was easy to fear the worst.
Wales had survived a triple scare in the seventh minute, which featured a save from Wayne Hennessey, after Carrasco had been unmarked at the far post; a goal line block by Neil Taylor and another deflection which sent Hazard’s rebound over the crossbar. From the corner, Romelu Lukaku stretched but could not convert.
The breakthrough came from Nainggolan’s 30-yard thunderbolt, from Hazard’s tee-up and, such was the pace and power, Hennessey had no chance.
And yet by the interval, Wales had taken charge. It was a stunning turnaround, driven by the runs of Bale and, in particular, the craft of Aaron Ramsey. Belgium’s defense had a patched-up feel, after the suspension of Thomas Vermaelen and the injury to Jan Vertonghen. Both Jason Denayer and Jordan Lukaku looked nervous, especially when Bale tore at them.
Wales gained a foot-hold when Ramsey found the space to cross, following a Belgian defensive breakdown, and Taylor met it with a first-time side-foot. Thibaut Courtois’s reflex save was outstanding. The goalkeeper was beaten when those in front of him switched off for Ramsey’s corner and, when Williams arrived like a TGV train, there would be only one outcome from his downward header that beat De Bruyne covering on the post.
Wales sought to turn the screw. Bale ran at Denayer and extended Courtois with a right-foot shot; Ramsey saw an effort deflect wide from Bale’s pass and, from another Ramsey cross, Robson-Kanu’s header worked the goalkeeper. It was breathless stuff.
There was a Premier League feel to tempo – possibly, because there were so many Premier League players on the field – and the action pulsed from end-to-end. Wilmots had been sufficiently concerned by the influence of Bale and Ramsey that he introduced Fellaini for Carrasco at half-time to bulk up in the middle.
Belgium tore at Wales. Twice, Thomas Meunier crossed from the right and from the first one, Romelu Lukaku, headed what was a gilt-edged chance wide. From the second, Williams made a crucial intervention before the Belgium striker could pounce. Hazard also blasted just past the far post.
But Wales tore back, and Robson-Kanu wrote his name into folklore when he borrowed from another culture – that of Cruyff’s Holland – to open up the shooting chance for himself. Three of Belgium’s defense were last seen heading towards the Quatre Cantons metro stadium.
It was startling to see how ragged Belgium looked at the back. From another Ramsey corner on the hour, they threatened to dissolve again and there was also the sight of Williams leaping into a side-on volley and sending the ball rising over the crossbar.
There were sights for sore eyes everywhere. Ramsey made his one error when reached to handle an attempted Belgium throughball but, with Belgium not truly threatening the equalizer, Vokes had the last word.