In the end nobody was on fire at the Parc des Princes. No one seemed that terrified either, except perhaps those spectators haunted by the possibility this gruelling last-16 match might stretch on into extra time.
Not that the afternoon was a complete loss. There was certainly a great deal of na-na na na-na na from the stands as Northern Ireland’s travelling support confirmed the sense of lightness, fun and delight in the tournament experience that has marked their travels here.
Wales move on to the quarter-finals of Euro 2016, where they will play Belgium or Hungary on Friday. For Michael O’Neill’s adaptable team, the ride is now at an end after a match in which Northern Ireland had the better of the opening hour – these things are relative – before being undone by the afternoon’s only real moment of incision.
As had always seemed likely, Gareth Bale made the game’s only goal, the ball put through his own net by Gareth McAuley after a wicked low cross from the left. At the end of which, when it comes to Bale and Wales, it is once again worth stating the obvious.
The most expensive player in the world was muscled to the edge of things here but he was still a genuine cut above, an elite athlete able to move and turn and see the game at a level beyond anyone else on the pitch. In those moments it was startling, even a little embarrassing, to see Bale spring away with the ball, resembling at times some overly competitive PE teacher joining in the Friday afternoon games lesson.
It is a spectacle made all the more compelling by Bale’s total immersion in every game he plays for Wales, the lack of distance or arm-waving frustration if his own talents occasionally jar with the action around him. At one point in Paris, hemmed in by four block-pressing defenders, Bale could be seen reaching down mid-stride to prise away the fingers grabbing his shirt, while simultaneously wrenching his torso from another set of hands and rearranging his feet to cross on the run, two white and one red shirt clawing at one another in a small pool of light like some celtic Caravaggio ensemble.
There were not many other reasons to remember this game. On German television Mehmet Scholl described the match as “nothing to do with football”, and he was right in at least one sense. This was more about the air of boisterous neighbourly spectacle. Wales’s own solid red block stretched around one quarter of the Parc des Princes. The Northern Irish were fewer but just as noisy, bouncing in their seats throughout the familiar, unceasing paean to Will Grigg and his ongoing state of combustion.
On the pitch Northern Ireland were robust, playing for an hour the way Wales play when they are allowed just to be Wales, sitting back, tackling hard, looking to break. The difference being that Wales have that one unignorable ace. Not that this is a one-man team. Aaron Ramsey played well again. Joe Allen is a high-class midfielder. Wales are simply a team, no matter how the parts divvy up.
Still, though, there is a need sometimes to take a step back and appreciate the sight of a genuine star player doing something that is, if not unprecedented, then extraordinary. Bale scored seven of Wales’s 11 goals in qualifying. In France he has been a disorientating threat in every game. He is, overall, the tournament’s single outstanding attacking influence. These moments do not come often.
At the end of which a nation that did not make it to a tournament for 58 years is now two wins away from the final. Best of all, Wales really do have nothing to fear. Not just for underdog reasons, but because only Portugal – and even this is debatable – have an extreme attacking talent to match their own gun player.
Plenty of teams have overachieved at this championship in the past. Some have won it through sheer collective will. There are fewer precedents for a team progressing through the rounds propelled by a single, outstanding cutting edge. In World Cups Eusébio took Portugal to the 1966 semi-finals. Zbigniew Boniek and Grzegorz Lato led fine all-round Polish teams to two semis. Diego Maradona, naturally, lurks near the peak of any list of solo team-sport achievements.
Bale is not in this kind of territory. Maradona was an all-time great who did something unique at Mexico 86. Wales are in the last eight of a low-pressure tournament. Still, though, the giddy, distant prospect of Bale somehow doing even a near-Diego at these Euros – what American political scientists might call The Garadona Possibility – is not beyond the limits of what passes for real life these days. There are no overpowering teams in France. Lest we forget, Maradona himself only really got going in the quarters-finals. This is not over.
For now, Bale is simply having a fine and unusually liberated tournament. Four matches have brought 19 shots and 21 dribbles, more than any other player in France. More significantly, Bale has also been dispossessed a lot, almost half as many times as he was all year in La Liga. He has missed a lot of passes, been allowed to make mistakes, to take a chance with his impact.
This is surely the key to his success here, and Chris Coleman’s tactical triumph. No other attacking player has been given such freedom to make mistakes, winched into place at the head of his team and encouraged to run with the ball, to take risks, to roam as he pleases, but also to take players on.
Should Belgium progress, as most expect, Wales will play their quarter-final as second-favourites, which might suit them better than the grapple with the Northern Irish. The corollary of this is that stopping Bale is easier for better teams. Axel Witsel and the rest of Belgium’s high-class midfield could simply decide to keep the ball away from him, to sweep possession to other areas of the pitch, as England did in Lens when Bale did little beyond scoring from a free-kick.
Either way Wales will have to play better in every area to go another round. Ashley Williams has looked shaky at times. The midfield, superior on paper, took an hour to assert itself. For all his feats on this run Bale was also a flickering presence, albeit one with the freedom to spring into full dazzling life at any moment.
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