Euro 2016: It’s time to go home, but Wales never looked out of place on the international stage

“Don’t take me home,” Wales fans have sung all summer long, ensuring a chant that was introduced to the tournament by England supporters did not exit with Roy Hodgson’s men in the round of 16.

Wales' players salute their fans at the end of the Euro 2016 semifinal soccer match between Portugal and Wales, at the Grand Stade in Decines-Charpieu, near Lyon, France, Wednesday, July 6, 2016. Portugal won 2-0. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
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"Don't take me home," Wales fans have sung all summer long, ensuring a chant that was introduced to the tournament by England supporters did not exit with Roy Hodgson's men in the round of 16. After a 2-0 semi-final defeat at the hands of Portugal, though, the time has indeed come for Wales to depart France following an incredible European Championship debut.

The manner in which they have played over the last few weeks makes it easy to forget how inexperienced Wales are at this level. Euro 2016 is the first time they have taken part in an international competition since the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, when Wales failed to win a game and were eliminated in the first knockout round by a Pele-inspired Brazil.

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New ground was broken this summer, the country that is home to just over three million people flying their flag on the continental stage for the first time. And yet Wales did not play like minnows; there were no signs of any sort of inferiority complex among Chris Coleman and his players. Granted, the presence in the side of Gareth Bale – a world-class attacker who has been superb throughout 2016 – meant they could never assume quite the same underdog status as an Iceland or Albania, but Wales’ place in the last four was made possible by their excellent football, terrific team spirit and well-defined game plan, not pluckiness or bravery.

They began with a 2-1 victory against Slovakia, goals from Bale and Hal Robson-Kanu helping Wales to their first ever tournament triumph. It was a fair outcome on the day: Coleman’s side dominated the first half, and although Slovakia had a strong 20-minute spell, after the interval they ultimately did not do enough to deserve a share of the spoils.

A last-gasp 2-1 loss to England followed, with Wales perhaps – at least with the benefit of hindsight – sinking back too deep as they attempted to hold out for a draw. There was no hangover from such a dramatic defeat, though, with Russia obliterated 3-0 in their subsequent match. It was a tremendous performance that secured top spot in Group B, with the Welsh running riot on the counter-attack against a dismally organised opposition.

That result set up an all-British last-16 clash with Northern Ireland, a match in which Coleman’s men were frustrated for long periods before eventually making the breakthrough when Gareth McAuley turned in Bale’s wicked cross in the 75th minute. Wales were then much improved against Belgium in the quarter-finals, with one of the pre-tournament favourites deservedly beaten by a team who were sharper, smoother and slicker, not to mention far more coherent and clinical.

Unfortunately for Wales, though, Portugal in the last four was a step too far. The first half on Wednesday was a tight affair, both sides reluctant to press or commit too many bodies forward in case they were caught out on the break. But Fernando Santos’ side saw out the game brilliantly after scoring twice in quick succession in the opening 10 minutes of the first half. The fact that Wales had to turn to Simon Church, Sam Vokes and Jonny Williams – three players who spent last season in the second tier of English football – as their second-half substitutes showcased a relatively shallow talent pool in relation to the type of countries that usually qualify for the semi-finals of international tournaments.

The identity of the replacements also underlined exactly how well Wales have done in France, however. Bale is this team’s leader and stepped up to the plate admirably, but there were also some stellar contributions from Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen, Ashley Williams, Ben Davies and, somewhat more surprisingly, Jonny Williams, Vokes and Hal Robson-Kanu.

Attention will soon turn towards World Cup qualification, with the race to reach Russia beginning for European sides in early September. On the evidence of their showings at Euro 2016, Wales have every chance of being there.

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