Of the more peculiar sights in modern professional football, post-loss celebrations are perhaps the most contradictory. With every action geared towards winning, defeats are pored over and recriminations apportioned according to the cruel process of high-level sport’s increasingly petulant culture of blame.
In the seemingly unending cycle of tournament qualification, however, none of that need apply; getting to the dance is all that matters. And thus Wales swiftly disposed of any disappointment at losing to Bosnia and Herzegovina in Zenica on Saturday night, embracing, instead, Cyprus’s triumph over Israel and, therefore, their secured spot at next summer’s European Championships, the country’s first major finals appearance since 1958.
They are not the first small nation to book a place at UEFA’s showpiece event. Albania, Iceland and Northern Ireland — a team, lest we forget, with richer historical pedigree than their Celtic counterparts over the Irish sea — came from nowhere to qualify.
Yet, for the Welsh, this achievement is especially satisfying given the horrible near misses that they have endured in the six decades since playing in a World Cup better better remembered for Pelé’s ascension than their own run to the quarter-finals.
Chris Coleman’s charges may go to France as relative minnows but they will also travel armed with the knowledge that as one of the first 12 teams make it over the line, their presence is based on its own merits.
When UEFA made the decision to expand the competition’s format from 16 entrants to 24, there were genuine fears that the competitive spirit so inherent to the previously lean Euros could be diluted by allowing almost half of Europe’s 54 member associations to play in the tournament proper.
The qualifying fixtures, dismissed as a simple formality for the continent’s aristocrats, have, in fact, proved a tricky proposition for those much higher up the footballing food chain than the Welsh.
The Netherlands, as ageing and ornery as they are, remain an A-list name, though their attendance looks unlikely at best thanks to a dire campaign. While none of them have plumbed the same depths, Croatia, Russia, Sweden and Turkey must wait on their individual fates. Ukraine, joint hosts three years ago, cannot make concrete plans.
Even world champions Germany have drawn it out. The Greeks, unlikely winners in 2004 but a respectable collective in the years since, may now schedule holidays for 2016.
In contrast, Wales should feel immense pride, not only that they finally get to dine at the top table, but that they would have been doing so anyway, regardless of UEFA’s meddling.
With 18 points from a possible 27, the team has acquitted itself admirably in a group containing hipster powerhouse Belgium — whose squad seems more glittering every time it is announced — and the aforementioned Bosnians, comprised of more than enough talent to sustain a challenge.
While much will depend on the opponents come June, Coleman can be confident in a squad that marries industry with a sense of tight collegiality. Having built upon the foundations laid down by the late, great Gary Speed, the Swansea native boasts a tidy unit with which to work.
In goalkeeper Wayne Hennessy and midfielder Joe Ledley, both of Crystal Palace, and Swansea’s Ashley Williams, the team captain, Wales possess experienced performers currently plying their trade in the upper reaches of the Premier League.
Arsenal metronome Aaron Ramsey continues to distinguish himself as one of the division’s sleekest midfielders, a player who, at the age of 24, sustains a role belying his relative youth. Andy King and Joe Allen, too, add the necessary artisanal qualities necessary to thrive in the absence of abundant talent.
King and Leicester City have dazzled as the surprise ingredient in this season’s Premiership brew, while Allen’s displays in his national jersey tend to rise above the dour showings that underwhelm so many at Liverpool.
How far Wales progress ultimately depends, of course, on the efforts of Gareth Bale. Like Ryan Giggs before him, Bale is his side’s one truly world-class component and it is through him that his country’s fortunes will flow.
Club achievements aside, Giggs never did receive the opportunity to perform in the gilded echelons of international football and so the onus is on Bale, a footballer who has proved far more durable than the latter ever was in the scarlet of his homeland, to set the mood.
The world’s most expensive player, Bale wields a reputation anchored in the status that comes with being a Real Madrid galáctico. He is the prototypical contemporary attacker, a sort of free-roaming, one-man blitzkrieg whose basic function is to forage like a particularly enthusiastic gun dog unleashed on the unsuspecting, helpless prey.
Neither winger nor striker, Bale’s searing speed and movement render him merely a ‘forward’, as if to be bound by position would mitigate the effect he might have on those around him, friends and foes alike.
Bale has embraced the top billing, turning in a number of stellar performances to go with six vital goals in nine matches. His influence is obvious; his form is crucial. When Wales step out for that opening bout, it will be a fitting stage for their star man, as it will for his compatriots. This is nothing less than they deserve.