Rome, the Eternal City – the city in which many a gladiator has been put to the sword, and battled to produce a warrior-like performance. And also, where Robert Page’s Welsh side fought hard against Italy, in their final group game at Euro 2020, to secure their place in the knockout stages.
Despite a narrow defeat at the hands of the group winners, the loss was still celebrated like a win, with the news that Wales had finished as runners up and will play knockout football once again at the European Championships. While Switzerland beat Turkey in the other Group A match, played at the same time, Wales progressed to the round of 16, once more – this time on goal difference.
Continuing to the ride the crest of the wave that saw them well and truly defy the odds in France at Euro 2016, they are yet to await their feat – and opponents in the round of 16 – but while Euro 2020 betting may be against them, it’s surely another success story for the Red Dragons.
Wales won’t have as long to wait this time around. Five years ago, after finishing as Group B winners, ahead of England, they had to wait until the eleventh hour to see who they’d be facing in the round of 16 – courtesy of the complicated third-placed team ruling.
It looked as though Turkey would be their opponents, but an 85th minute from the Republic of Ireland’s Robbie Brady against Italy, set up a home nation tie against Northern Ireland. We all know what happened next.
And so, with a runner-up place in Group A this time around, Wales will be facing their counterpart from Group B – still to be confirmed, at the time of writing. Assuming that Belgium will top their group, with two wins already under their belt, second place could still be won by any other nation: Russia, Finland or Denmark.
After so long without a performance at a major tournament – Wales had missed out on a place more times than they qualified – at last, after 54 years they reached the dizzy heights of a finals place, five years ago. They had come close in the past – advancing for the play-offs ahead of Euro 2004, before succumbing to Russia at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. A tough qualifying group ahead of Euro 2012 saw Wales finish fourth, but just three points behind Montenegro who secured second in the standings, and subsequently, advanced to the play-offs.
It’s a remarkable story – one that has seen Wales not only qualify for back-to-back European Championships, but continue to make history and climb the FIFA World Rankings in the process. A European minnow that once languished beneath the likes of even Haiti, Guatemala and Guyana, in 117th place in the world — to mixing it with the big boys, and a rise to the top 10, with a record high of eighth position in 2015. Wales are now 17th, exactly 100 places higher than their lowest ever ranking.
The squad have been praised countless times for their doggedness, determination and team spirit, particularly in the dressing room. It’s this kind of togetherness that has ensured the nation goes far – and the camaraderie is unlike any other.
As Page said after that final group game in Rome:
“Don’t underestimate the character of a Welshman.”