Aaron Ramsey at the beating, Belgium-battering heart of Wales’s glory

Wales' Aaron Ramsey reacts

As the clock ran down in those febrile, oddly still moments after Sam Vokes’s goal had confirmed what everyone in the Stade Pierre Mauroy already knew, the Welsh end lolled and bounced around like a huge, seething red-shirted basket of kittens.

Wales were 3-1 up against Belgium, on their way to the semi-finals, and two games away from actually winning this tournament.

Really, though, this was too much detail. It was simply a glorious, self-contained moment, the kind that never leaves fans who were there, the sky in Flanders filled with the crackles and shouts and roars of a crowd entirely drunk on the spectacle. On the pitch Belgium’s players scurried about looking beaten and flattened and frankly a little incredulous.

It had been a gloomy day in Flanders, a great damp plain that even in mid-summer retains its embedded gloom. All day Lille had been turned red by 150,000 travelling Belgians, who had hopped across the border into this lovely ornate town right up in the north eastern armpit of France. And yet it is Wales who will now travel to Lyon to play Portugal, taking their first appearance in a tournament for 58 years right to the final knockings.

If there was a moment of sadness, it came with Aaron Ramsey’s yellow card in the second half for a needless handball. Ramsey will now miss the semi-final. But he had a wonderful game here on a wild night in Lille, in a game that settled around a genuinely stunning moment 10 minutes into the second half.

Ramsey played his part here too. The introduction of Marouane Fellaini after the break had been a tribute to his influence, an extra rumbling body to wrest back an area of Welsh strength. It seemed to work for 10 minutes. And then, abruptly it didn’t.

Aaron Ramsey

“I’ve taken the ball, turned and just hit it,” Hal Robson-Kanu said afterwards. Which is certainly one way of putting it, just as Rubens’ Descent From The Cross is a nice picture of some people standing around and Notre Dame cathedral is a big building by a river. No, Hal. You’re not getting away with that.

Has there ever been a better individual moment in Welsh football history than Robson-Kanu’s goal here? Perhaps not, given the perfect synchronicity between the three players that made it; and beyond that an entire flickering showreel of choices made, tiny little shifts, right moves, steps forward that brought this vibrant group of players to Flanders in the first place.

The move started with Ramsey’s driving run through the Belgian midfield to take a lovely floated pass from Gareth Bale on his toe. Ramsey killed the ball and turned to cross. What happened next was breathtaking. It is a moment that will play forever in the background for Robson-Kanu, who paused for the tiniest moment, then produced an utterly outrageous Cruyff-style turn, the pirouette so swift, so brutally dismissive the comparison seems just.

Three Belgian defenders ran the wrong way, a lovely and indeed very funny moment of physical deception. Robson-Kanu shifted his weight and buried it. And then off he went, continuing on his way to hurl himself into his team-mates on the touchline. Oh, Wales. What have you done here?

It was all the more startling given the beginning to this game. The Welsh fans had produced the usual class-leading anthem before kick-off, prickling neck hairs all around the stadium. But it was Belgium who began at a rush, Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard linking with precision. With eight minutes gone they somehow contrived not to score, three successive close-range shots blocked by a flailing wall of red shirts.

Finally Wales found a glimpse of space, Bale turning and running at goal from halfway, one against six, looking for a moment like peak-era Jonah Lomu carrying an under-the-cosh schools team forward against the Aussies.

Still Belgium moved the ball between them with an ominous slickness. How long could Wales hold out? Twelve minutes was the answer. Radja Nainggolan’s opening goal was also a stunner. Hazard laid a pass back and Nainggolan struck the ball first time with such sweet-spot precision replays showed just a lovely little mist escaping beneath the ball as he cut across it, both feet off the ground, sending it fizzing into somewhere close to the top corner. Replays might incriminate Wayne Hennessey but in real time it was a shot of unsaveable power.

From there Ramsey drove Wales back into the game. In the first half alone he created five chances, playing with a waspish, needling energy that troubled the Belgium midfield and drew the full backs out into uncomfortable areas. In between he tracked Hazard and fought and grappled to get a handle on the Mad-Max-Euro-playmaker stylings of Nainggolan.

It has been a wonderful tournament for Ramsey, a player who looked a little drained in a varying role between defence and attack at Arsenal last season. Perhaps the difference at this tournament is simply confidence. It has been an occasionally awkward few years at Arsenal. With Wales he looks liberated, darling of the crowd, entirely sure of his role, legs constantly whizzing, a sniping, scurrying menace.

Against the head the equaliser arrived, Ramsey’s corner headed in with bullocking power by Ashley Williams. After half-time there were Robson-Kanu’s unforgettable contribution and a fine header from Vokes to complete the victory with four minutes remaining. And at the end here as the players danced on the pitch, children coming out again to take penalties in front of the Welsh fans, the whole occasion had the feeling of a vast, entirely glorious family wedding.

With the stadium empty on three sides the Welsh players, families and coaching staff were still sitting on the turf, hugging, laughing, giving each other piggy backs and savouring every last tang of the moment. It was, in a cynical old game, a magical but also utterly normal moment of joy, the kind of thing this sport is basically for. Ramsey, the lion of Lille, will be missing on Wednesday. It is a blow. But then nothing this Wales team does from here should surprise anyone.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Barney Ronay at the Stade Pierre Mauroy, for The Guardian on Friday 1st July 2016 23.55 Europe/London

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