‘Dream’ has become an overused word in sport really, hasn’t it?
Every remarkable or unlikely occurrence seems to boil down to what the main protagonists were unconsciously thinking of when they drifted off to the land of nod the day, the week or the month or so before.
Leicester City’s players apparently didn’t dream that they were riding a unicorn naked through the streets of downtown Las Vegas (just me?) last season, but instead were imagining what it would be like to beat the likes of Sunderland, Swansea and Everton on their run-in to Premier League glory. Then they did it. “It’s a dream come true,” said Wes Morgan, Jamie Vardy and everyone else.
Was it a dream though? Or was it instead the result of a hard-working team’s desire, gameplan and no little quality?
The Foxes were the best team in the Premier League in 2015/16 and deserved to win it, just as Wales have been one of the best eight teams at Euro 2016 and deserve to be in the quarter-finals, although that’s apparently a dream too.
And they’ve all be saying it.
Google ‘Wales Dream’ and you’ll find multiple stories relating to the team’s run in France, with forward Sam Vokes even using the D word in an interview after the tough old slog against Northern Ireland at the weekend.
Belgium are next, and beating them would be ‘a dream’ despite the fact that Wales did exactly that when qualifying for this tournament a year ago. Then there is ‘daring to dream’ too, which is presumably almost not quite being brave enough to dream about such a ludicrous state of affairs as beating Belgium and then one of Poland or Portugal to reach the final, but doing it anyway.
All of this isn’t supposed to downplay what Wales have done in France. Far from it.
Chris Coleman’s side have been terrific, latching onto Gareth Bale’s wild ride as their talisman has lead them to three victories from their four matches to first top Group B and now end up in the last eight of their first major tournament in 58 years.
All over France, the Welsh supporters have gone along for that ride, basking in sunshine and glory in Bordeaux, Lens, Toulouse and Paris, with the next stop being Lille for the Belgium game.
In their only previous major tournament, the 1958 World Cup, Wales eventually fell to a goal from a 17-year-old Pele on his way to global superstardom, and the near six decades which have followed have brought seemingly endless hard luck stories. Wales had long decided that their national football team were cursed.
Yet that team should have been doing better.
In pretty much every decade since that Pele goal, Wales have had some of the best players to grace British football, only to fall short as a collective.
The real triumph that Coleman has managed to achieve in both qualifying for Euro 2016 and whilst he’s there is that he’s moulded the current crop into a team, and what a fine team it is.
It was striking to contrast the players that Wales have at their disposal compared to Northern Ireland’s spirited array of lower league footballers on Saturday.
Whereas Michael O’Neill calls upon players from Fleetwood Town, Doncaster Rovers, Millwall and in a couple of cases, Unattached, Coleman has got Real Madrid’s most expensive player in the world, Arsenal’s midfield metronome, a Liverpool midfielder who is a favourite with Reds fans, as well as fine Premier League defenders who play week-in, week-out for their teams. Northern Ireland’s place in the last-16 was a dream, but Wales’s spot in the last eight isn't.
There is still a sprinkling of the less well-known, of course, but this is a Wales squad which is every bit as talented as those vintages which went before, the only difference is coming in application. On starting XIs alone, they belong in the last eight at the Euros.
So this fantastic run in France shouldn’t be seen as ‘a dream’ or a once in a lifetime opportunity for the Welsh fans who have so passionately and noisily followed their team around the country.
Wales, a country of just over three million people – around the same as two-time World Cup and record 15-time Copa America winners Uruguay – should be regularly rubbing shoulders with the elite at major tournaments.
And whatever happens against Belgium on Friday night, this Euro 2016 ‘dream’ has to be seen as just the start.
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