Talk to any Welsh football fan. Any one you like. In a wall of red, pick any number of them, and ask them one simple question.
“Where were you when Robson-Kanu put three Belgium defenders on their collective arses?”
They will all be able to tell you exactly where they. They will be able to tell you the names of Fellaini, Meunier and Denayer, and they will be able to tell you how they felt at that exact moment in time.
Each individual will tell you how they threw their pints into the air in the fan zones, or roared with excitement in their local pub. Maybe some celebrated by jumping off their couch, or even celebrated with the team in the stadium in Lille. It wasn’t just a goal. It was an event. Bookended by two superb goals by Ashley Williams and Sam Vokes, it catapulted Wales from perennial losers to their arrival on the big stage. We weren’t just “that country that plays Rugby”, we were “Euro Semi-Finalists Wales”.
When Wales arrived in Bordeaux in 2016, we didn’t expect anything. We would have been happy losing every single game (except against England) and would have taken losses to Slovakia and Russia in our stride. It didn’t matter what happened, Wales were represented.
“Not since 1958“, as the Manic Street Preachers sang, had Wales tasted a real, live tournament. Not since the days of John Charles, the gentle giant of Turin, leading the team out. It took a young Pele to knock a Charles-less Wales out of the 1958 World Cup, and generations had come and gone, wondering and hoping, when they would see that Dragon flying again.
It wasn’t until Chris Coleman led the team out against Slovakia that any Wales fans truly believed we had made it. The anthem had never been sung louder than by the Red Wall in Bordeaux that day. Hairs stand up on the back of my neck just re-listening the crowd belting out the first verse and chorus of “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau” (Land of My Fathers) to a packed Stade de Bordeaux.
Comedian Ellis James described the summer of 2016 as “The best summer of my life” and many others can match that sentiment. When Bale’s free kick snuck into the bottom corner, fans started to feel like we had a chance. When Hal Robson-Kanu poked in the winner late on, we started to feel like we belonged.
Next came the England, and I game have never even seen the highlights for. It was a blip in an overwise perfect fairy tale. A soul-crushing defeat on the day, but quickly forgotten once Neil Taylor slotted past Igor Akinfeev to send Wales top of the group and run away 3-0 winners against Russia. It was one of the most complete Wales performances I’ve ever seen, and we put the Russians to sword.
The round of 16 match against Northern Ireland was, in a word, forgettable. I watched it with my friends, including Matt Williams, in Walkabout in Cardiff town centre. The only thing about the entire game that I remember was the own goal, Gareth McAuley hitting Gareth Bale’s cross into his own net. The game’s only saving grace is that it allowed Wales to progress, and meet with the number one ranked team in the world. Belgium.
The Belgium Match
It was the 1st of July, 2016. Lille was the setting. Belgium were the victims. Hal Robson-Kanu was the hero. We were all witness.
The national anthem in this match was sung with tears in the eyes of many. But they were not tears of sorrow, loss or of anger. They were of joy, of hope. Of a nation ready to take its place at the forefront of international football. And the only things we had stood in our way was the number 1 one ranked team in the world.
But we knew we could beat them.
Cast your mind back to a 1-0 victory in Cardiff. Belgium came to the capital searching for Euros qualification. Eden Hazard was one of the best players in the world, yet he left the stadium a 1-0 loser and still scraping the lint off his body. The lint he had acquired being stuck in Jazz Richard back pocket all game.
This day would be no different, except Jazz would get nowhere near the pitch.
Radja Nainggolan took the lead for Belgium after 13 minutes. It was a thunderous strike from 30 yards that Hennessey could do nothing about. Wales played some electric football in the second half, however, and drew level was a well worked training ground header from the captain Ashley Williams. We went into half time level.
The second half began and Wales were getting battered. Belgium had chance after chance, Kevin De Bruyne running the game from midfield and was unlucky not to score. It only took ten minutes for the deadlock to be broken.
But not for them.
Bale. To Ramsey. Ramsey to Robson-Kanu. He’s looking for Neil Taylor. Hal Robson-Kanu. HAL ROBSON-KANU! WHAT A GOAL FROM HAL ROBSON-KANU!
A Ramsey cross into Robson-Kanu, who Cryuff turned Fellaini, Meunier and Denayer and sent them on their arses. He then places the ball into the bottom corner as Courtois weeps into his gloves. The tears start falling as soon as the turn is made; he knows God is clearly Welsh and he wont let Robson-Kanu miss. He dives but can’t get near it.
Three Million people jump off their seats, from Llandudno to Lille, from Cardiff to Cannes, from Pontypridd to Paris. Wales have turned the footballing landscape on it’s head and demanded a seat at the big boy table.
Sam Vokes scored the winner and Wales went through 3-1 winners. The Welsh collective marched on to face and lose to eventual tournament winners Portugal, but it mattered little in the scheme of things, for all Welsh fans, their dreams had already been made.