As Wales players and staff shared a moment with their fans after Tuesday’s 3-0 defeat by England had sealed their group-stage exit from the World Cup, there was a sense of an ending more profound than the usual closure that comes with the conclusion of a team’s tournament.
This was, after all, Wales’ first World Cup for 64 years, the culmination of a nation’s long-held dream.
And as this dream-like state faded to black under a desert night sky in Qatar, it felt like the end of an era – or at least the beginning of its end – like no other in the country’s history.
Put simply, Wales has never had it so good. For generations, Welsh football had been synonymous with, at best, narrow misses and tales of anguish and, at worst, long spells of abject failure and outright apathy.
The longer the wait to qualify for a major tournament went on, the more the 1958 World Cup felt like a curious antique of a past too distant to comprehend.
Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen and the rest followed that with qualification for a second successive European Championship but still a second World Cup proved elusive – until this year.
As Robert Page and his players applauded the Red Wall and savoured one last rendition of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, the mutual love and respect was as striking as ever.
Nothing could diminish the groundswell of national pride at seeing Wales back on this grandest stage of all.
And while nothing will change that fact, as well as taking the time to look back, Wales must now consider what comes next.
Wales can feel immensely proud to have qualified for a first World Cup for 64 years and, at the same time, they can be deeply disappointed by their performances in Qatar.
The build-up was justifiably epic given the historical significance but, whereas Wales have risen to the challenge in all three of their previous major tournaments to reach the knockout stages, it proved beyond them here.
There were many reasons for their failings, one of the most striking being the fading lustre of an ageing golden generation.
Bale, his country’s record goalscorer and cap holder in men’s football, has been the face of Welsh football for more than a decade, regarded by many as the greatest player to have come from Wales.
Ramsey and Allen may not be viewed in quite the same exalted light but, as their selection in Uefa’s official team of the tournament for Euro 2016 illustrated, they have been integral figures to the Welsh renaissance.
At this World Cup, however, all three were pale imitations of their former selves.
“I’m not going to make a call on that right now,” said Page after the England game.
“The good thing is we’ve got games in March, Euro qualifiers, tough games. We’ll have a look at the squad, at the players we’ve got and, if there are young players out there that we need to push and promote, now’s the time to do it.”
Leave a Reply