When the latest FIFA World Rankings were released last week, Wales found themselves in uncharted territory – 10th in the world and above the likes of Spain, Italy, France and Chile. Whether Wales should be quite that high is of course up for debate, but one thing is for certain, Chris Coleman and his men and riding on the crest of wave and heading towards their first major tournament for nearly 50 years after an unbeaten start to their Euro 2016 campaign.
Things don’t change overnight, but Wales’ recent rise has been remarkable. Languishing at 117 in the world just four years ago, the Dragons have steadily gained momentum and positions as results have started to improve under the late Gary Speed and now Coleman. There are of course a plethora of reasons for Wales’ rise but the importance of Gareth Bale cannot be underestimated. Often chastened during his two years to date at the Bernabeu, every time he pulls on a Welsh jersey, Bale shows the world what everyone knows he is capable of with a breath-taking spell of displays for his country during that same period.
More importantly, Bale has the ability to bring the best out of his teammates. His club colleague Cristiano Ronaldo is often criticised for being too selfish but Bale has no such issues, always running hard for the team cause despite being the undisputed star man. This was never more apparent than during the 45 minutes with 10 men against Cyprus last October when the frontman ran himself into the ground for the cause. After Wales held on for victory, it was Bale who then gathered his teammates together in a show of solidarity. 5 goals in 6 games including winners against Andorra and Belgium underline Bale’s attacking prowess, but just as important was his goal line clearance during dying seconds in Brussels as Wales held on for a valuable point.
However, to attribute Wales’ successful European campaign to just one individual would be wide of the mark. Coleman, under heavy pressure after a poor start to his reign, has changed formation to play with a back three. The change has seen Wales get their best players in the team and concede just two goals in their six qualifiers to date, a record only bettered by Romania. They have not conceded a goal in 360 minutes against Bosnia and Herzegovina, Belgium and Israel, the teams from the top three pots when the group was drawn.
Another bold decision by Coleman was to take the captain’s armband from Aaron Ramsey and give it to Ashley Williams. Whilst Ramsey was more than capable in the role, the move has given Wales’ other world class player the freedom to just concentrate on his football, while Williams, a more natural leader having been captain for Swansea can order instructions from the back.
In recent years the country’s home games have been moved from the Millennium Stadium to the Cardiff City Stadium. Moving fixtures away from your national stadium may sound like a bizarre move but it is another thing that has helped Wales to regain form and confidence. Instead of playing in a half empty stadium with an eerie atmosphere, they can play in front of a packed stadium with fans closer to the pitch and a much more hostile occasion for opponents.
Of course having a successful team relies on having good players. Bale, Ramsey and Williams are complemented by a team full of Premier League players, something the country has often lacked in the past. It may seem like a small point, but having players that are used to the demands of a top European League week in week out prepares them much better for European qualifiers. When Jazz Richards was drafted in to face Eden Hazard in Cardiff, many feared the worst. Instead, Richards used the experience gained from appearing in the Premier League to keep Hazard quiet and give Wales the platform on which to record a memorable victory.
This competition for places is also healthy for the Welsh side. With the exception of Bale, Ramsey and Williams, every other player knows their position is under threat by another member of the squad. It helps to drive the team forward and is another thing that has been lacking all too often during Welsh history.
How far Wales can go remains to be seen. The country have a habit of managing to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, although a failure to now qualify for Euro 2016 would be spectacular even by Welsh standards. Once in France, there is no reason Wales can’t make an impact on the tournament. Having taken four points off Belgium, one of the pre-tournament favourites, there should not be a side the Welsh fear. Despite this, they still need to prove it against the more established European nations such as Germany, France, Spain and Italy. The current team haven’t had the opportunity to take on one of Europe’s elite yet but 2016 should provide them with this on the big stage. A victory would prove that the country do belong in the upper echelons of FIFA’s rankings and don’t just have the slightly flawed ranking system to thank for their meteoric rise.
The greatest problem Wales are likely to face in the run up to the Euros and the tournament itself are injuries and suspensions. The entire team have performed admirably over the first six European qualifiers, but if Gareth Bale or Ashley Williams were to pick up an injury, the source of goals and defensive organisation would come under major scrutiny and may be a bridge to far for the current Welsh side to overcome. The squad depth may be better than in previous years, but Wales are still a very small nation and don’t have the back-up cover of Europe’s elite.
The major challenge for Wales in the coming years will be continuing to qualify for major tournaments and establishing themselves as a recognised footballing nation. One major finals appearance in their entire history is an extremely poor return and suggests that a Euro 2016 appearance could be a flash in the pan. However, their current run has given them a great chance to become a greater footballing force, with the country now likely to be one of the top seeds when the 2018 World Cup draw is made, in stark comparison to their pot 4 rankings for the Euros. In football, there is often a snowball effect, a country that starts to do well can maintain their place amongst the elite as qualifying groups become easier, paving the way for future tournament involvement. Wales must grab this chance while they can and start to rock the boat of Europe’s current elite including challenging England as the UK’s top national team.
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