Gareth Bale's WinnerBy Jonathan Liew, Cardiff City Stadium
11:59PM BST 12 Jun 2015
Wales 1 Belgium 0, match report: Gareth Bale scores winner in Cardiff as Welsh edge towards Euro 2016 finals
Wales have done nothing yet; won nothing, achieved nothing, qualified for nothing. And so, why did this feel like such a triumph? Why, on a glorious, uproarious night in Cardiff, did it feel so utterly certain that something special was happening? Victory over Belgium, the world’s second-ranked nation, will not get them to Euro 2016 on its own. But the tide of noise that helped them along, the skill and goodwill and unimaginable thrill: well, that just might.
You could scarcely have constructed a more Welsh triumph. The closing acts of this game were played out in driving rain, as a four-sided chorus of Land of My Fathers poured into the night air. A match that had been billed as a blue-chip tussle between Gareth Bale and Eden Hazard ended up being a game of the people. Not for 22 years had Wales beaten Belgium. Not for much longer have they dared to dream like this. Bale scored the only goal, feeding off the crowd just as they fed off him, running himself so thoroughly into the ground that he ended the game doubled up with cramp.
Eden Hazard and Bale embrace at the end of the match
But this was an 11-man effort, a display of guts and grit and tireless energy.
It is a formidable concoction, and one that has been some years in the brewing. Wales has traditionally been a country defined by its contrasts: Swansea and Cardiff don’t like each other, the north and the south don’t like each other, and both find the centre a little bit weird. But under the aegis of the underrated Chris Coleman, and inspired by its most talented generation in a generation, Wales stands as one. “Together, Stronger” is this team’s slogan, and nothing encapsulated that better than the sight of three Swansea defenders getting rapturous receptions at the home of their greatest rivals.
Bale celebrates his goal with the Wales fans
“It’s hard to put into words,” Bale said, after winning his 50th international cap. “We battled in every area. The gaffer said to leave nothing out there and we did that. Now we can enjoy our summer.”
With limbs aching and joints tiring after a long season, this Wales side pulled out one of the games of their lives. This was an August performance, not a June performance, and it showed in the ferocity of every challenge and the intensity of every sprint. Captain Ashley Williams was simply brilliant in defence: sweeper, screener and old-school stopper all in one.
Jazz Richards, making his first international start in two years at right-back, was superb. Belgium looked lethargic, distracted, perhaps unsettled by the news that emerged just hours before the game that their coach Marc Wilmots was not, as expected, moving to Schalke this summer. And apart from a couple of Belgian blitzkriegs at the start of each half, Wales looked comfortable. Goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey made his last save in the 10th minute.
Chris Coleman set-up his side ready for the inevitable Belgian onslaught
Wary of Bale’s threat on the counter, Belgium appeared careful not to overcommit. Their full-backs largely hung back, while Hazard played a deeper role than he usually does for Chelsea, occasionally dropping into a quarterback position to lure defenders away from goal. Still, they dominated the early exchanges. Wales had barely pierced the Belgian half when they won a free-kick on the left after 25 minutes.
Aaron Ramsey took it, and in the head tennis that ensued, Radja Nainggolan decided to nod the ball back to goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois. The salient detail he had failed to spot was Bale, lurking next to Courtois in his scraggly topknot and fortnight-old beard, looking like the world’s most expensive hobo. Bale kept his nerve, brought the ball down, slid it past Courtois. It was only the second goal Belgium had conceded in the whole of qualifying.
Bale reels away in celebration after sending a partisan crowd in Cardiff wild
Belgium emerged for the second half with a change of shape: Everton’s Romelu Lukaku joining Christian Benteke up front in a 4-4-2, and while they enjoyed a good deal of territory they carved out few clear chances. Hazard had a header blocked; Benteke missed from four yards with Ashley Williams all over him like hot sauce.
Bale looked exhausted by the 70th minute, but fought on until the 88th, running on fumes alone. In any case, his duel with Hazard had largely been settled. As the Player of the Year toiled and toiled, getting angrier and angrier, every block, every challenge, every release of tension was greeted with a ferocious roar. Courtois ended the game in the opposition penalty area as Belgium desperately and clumsily tried to burgle an equaliser.
“We went crazy at full-time,” Coleman admitted. “As a coaching staff we have had tough times, but we have gained strength through adversity. There is a long way to go but we should enjoy it. That was the biggest win of my managerial career, and I believe there is a bigger one coming. That will be the one that says we are going to France.”
They are not there yet. They still have to go to Cyprus and Bosnia, but after a win like this nothing seems impossible. It is now overwhelmingly likely that when Euro 2016 begins next summer, Wales will be there, their first major international tournament since 1958. For now, a proud nation can toast one of its finest hours.