In hindsight, perhaps Wales got a little bit carried away. The joyous screams of Robbie Savage which bled out of the television after Wales beat Turkey, the worst team in the tournament, seemed to suggest that glory awaited this team of mostly Championship-level misfits with a couple of stars thrown in. The spirit of 2016 lingered on, the year in which a genuinely impressive Wales side stormed all the way to the semi-finals of Euro 2016, but ultimately their challenge five years on ended limply with a 4-0 defeat to Denmark in Amsterdam, and a sheepish admission that many of us were duped into thinking history was repeating itself.
It must be remembered that reaching the knockout stages of a major international tournament is a major achievement for a nation of Wales’ size and population. There is no shame in going out in the last 16 to a Denmark side who had a surge of emotional momentum pushing them along, following the collapse of Christian Eriksen in their first match of the tournament. And while it is disappointing that this current Wales team exited the tournament and left others fighting it out in the UEFA Euro winner odds, there is still hope for a first World Cup appearance since 1958 — their only prior qualification for the tournament, where they reached the quarter-finals.
That is the challenge facing interim coach Rob Page, and indeed Ryan Giggs, if and when he returns to the role of manager. But to get there they’ll need to learn from the mistakes made in losing so heavily to Denmark in the last 16 of Euro 2020. A trip to Qatar next winter stands as the ultimate prize, but the road to claiming it is long and paved with hard work, dedication, and a certain measure of luck.
At times there was a distinct lack of quality in midfield and defence, particularly in the game against Denmark, where the Danes simply swarmed their opponents’ midfield, and where stand-in striker Kasper Dolberg had a field-day against an error-strewn Welsh defensive performance. A tighter structure to the team will be in order, and it feels as though Wales lack a solid physical presence in midfield. As talented as Joe Allen is on the ball, he was bullied frequently throughout the tournament by stronger, more dynamic midfielders, and his regular midfield partner Joe Morrell doesn’t exactly boast much physicality either.
Then there is the lack of discipline which affected the team against both Italy and Denmark. Two red cards in four matches — Ethan Ampadu against Italy and Harry Wilson’s against Denmark — is not good enough from a team hoping to upset the odds and succeed at a major tournament. Wilson’s sending off in particular was a worrying sign. While many argued that it wasn’t deserving of a dismissal, the reality is that it was a wild challenge borne entirely out of frustration, with no attempt to win the ball. It was a stone-wall red card.
Those kinds of issues need to be ironed out, and there’s certainly a sense that emotion played too big a role in Wales’ Euro 2020 campaign. There was too much emphasis on the success of five years ago, and not nearly enough focus on the current crop of players, and the right ways to bring out the best in them. Sympathy must go to Page, who would never have expected the pressure to fall on his shoulders in leading his country at a European Championship, but he’ll have learned a lot from the experience and will be ready to help Wales take the next step.
With Gareth Bale promising that he will continue to play for Wales until he retires, and Aaron Ramsey and Dan James providing further quality in forward areas, there is hope for the Welsh that a trip to Qatar next November could well await them. Belgium, Czech Republic, Belarus and Estonia make up their qualification opponents, and while it’ll be difficult to overthrow both the Belgians and the Czechs, you can’t rule out Wales from making more memories in 2022.