By Simon Evans, Outside the Box
LILLE, France – Wales delivered the greatest performance in their soccer history beating one of the pre-tournament favourites Belgium 3-1 at the Stade Pierre Mauroy on Friday to move into the semi-finals of Euro 2016.
Wales, playing in their first major tournament in 58 years, will now play Portugal for a place in the July 10th final and if they are capable of repeating this remarkable display then such a once unthinkable scenario is by no means beyond them.
Marc Wilmots’ Belgium were stunned by two second half goals and a brand of Welsh football which went well beyond the fighting spirit and organisation which Chris Coleman’s team have rightly been praised for throughout this tournament.
Wales have never before reached the semi-finals of a major tournament with their previous best effort being a last eight place in the 1958 World Cup but their history, which has hung over them for decades, is being re-written in France.
‘It’s brilliant. My message to back home is to dream,” said Coleman.
“Don’t be afraid to have dreams. Four years ago I was as far away from this as you can imagine. It’s sweet and I think we deserve it,” he said.
Belgium, who enjoyed a virtual home field advantage given the thousands of their fans who had made the short trip over the border, took the lead in spectacular fashion in the 13th minute through a thundering 30 yard drive from midfielder Radja Nainggolan.
But Wales responded magnificently with their Real Madrid attacker Gareth Bale launching a series of raids, superbly supported from midfield by Aaron Ramsey.
The Welsh drew level in the 31st minute with captain and central defender Ashley Williams breaking loose to meet a corner with a thundering header.
Belgium looked stunned and Wales dominated the final minutes before the interval, playing with such confidence and panache that they would surely have skipped the break.
Sure enough Belgium came out strongly with Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard both going close with fine shots from distance but Wales held firm and when they took the lead it was with one of the goal’s of the tournament.
Striker Hal Robson-Kanu, who is without a club having been released by second tier English club Reading in May, produced a ‘Cruyff turn’ inside the area to leaving his marker Thomas Meunier floundering and wrong-footing two other Belgian defenders before firing past Thiibaut Courtois.
The tiring Robson-Kanu was substituted in the 80th minute, leaving the field to a fully merited ovation from the travelling Welsh support and to cap a night when so many things went right for the Welsh, his replacement made it 3-1 six minutes after entering.
Chris Gunter crossed from the right and Burnley striker Sam Vokes soared magnificently to angle in a header and set off a long night of Welsh celebration.
The only sour notes were yellow cards for Aaron Ramsey and Ben Davies which mean they will miss the semi-final through suspension.
Outside the Box is a Univision soccer blog by Simon Evans a British-born, Miami-based sports journalist who has covered every World Cup since 1998 and has worked across Europe and North America covering football for a number of international media outlets. He was the co-author of the ‘Rough Guide to European Football’ and his work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Guardian, Reuters and many other publications. @sgevans