Wales can begin to dream that the 12-year rule comes true at Euro 2016

Wales' Hal Robson-Kanu scores their second goal

In the aftermath of the quite stunning Wales victory over Belgium, Chris Coleman was understandably reluctant to look too far ahead.

It is best not to think about winning the tournament, he argued. You have to be in the final first and the most sensible approach is to concentrate on the next challenge, which happens to be Portugal. Wales might be in dreamland after Lille, but they are not about to fall into the trap of talking themselves up. They are a better side than many opponents seem to imagine, but that’s for Wales to know and others to find out.

Yet the question of winning the event is an entirely fair one to put to a team in the semi-finals. If you are in the last four, anything is possible. Just imagine the assumptions and bullish declarations that would now be flying around had England put themselves in Wales’s position. Yes, fair enough, in that event there would probably be pigs flying around too.

Wales lack tournament experience and are demonstrably a smaller nation than some of the teams who might contest the final, but their low-key approach has served them well. Greece, another small and unfancied nation, managed to win by stealth 12 years ago in Portugal and 12 years before that Denmark famously came in from their holidays to win the 1992 event in Sweden.

If nothing else, a superstition that every dozen years something unthinkable happens in the Euros appears to be on Wales’s side. Yet even that fails to do complete justice to what Coleman’s players are on the verge of pulling off.

Greece were an unloved, percentage-playing defensive side in 2004. They had no star players, they produced few memorable moments and therefore won few friends. Wales are completely different. Everyone knows they have a star from the Real Madrid firmament, though people are rapidly starting to appreciate that Aaron Ramsey, Ashley Williams, Hal Robson-Kanu and a few others are no mere support cast to Gareth Bale’s marquee billing.

Robson-Kanu’s turn to leave the entire Belgium defence moving in the wrong direction for Wales’s gobsmacking second goal in the quarter-final was nothing less than one of the moments of the tournament. Make that any tournament. On a night of glorious surprises, when neutrals everywhere were rooting for Wales because they played so boldly, not just because they were the small team in the fight, that perfectly executed piece of bravado topped the lot. Were Wales to go on to win the tournament it would not be in the negative manner of Greece 12 years ago. Even the disappointed Belgian supporters were applauding their Welsh counterparts in the bars and squares of Lille. This is a team and a success story that is already popular.

Denmark were a little like that in 1992, though it is important to remember that in those days eight teams contested the finals. It was still a remarkable achievement to win the competition with little or no preparation, but Wales have played as many games already.

In that sense, bearing in mind that they topped their group and disposed of one of the tournament favourites in Belgium, it could be argued that reaching the last four in a 24-team event is a broadly comparable feat. Were Wales to win in this expanded format it would have to be regarded as a greater achievement. If the 12-year rule comes to pass again and a small nation comes out on top – not necessarily Wales, Iceland are still in with a fighting chance – it could only be described as the biggest of small success stories.

But, as Coleman says, it is probably best not to look that far ahead. Portugal are not the biggest footballing nation either, though they have some tournament pedigree and have done well to reach the last four with Cristiano Ronaldo in decline. They barely deserved to get past a strangely subdued Croatia in the last 16, and managed to beat Poland only on penalties, but not all tournament success stories are rousing singalongs like Wales and Iceland.

Sometimes the teams that stay alive while keeping their powder dry for the closing stages are the ones that prevail. In a contrast of styles, it seems most of the rest of Europe will be shouting for Wales rather than Portugal, which may bring a new sort of pressure for the manager and his players to deal with. Ramsey and Ben Davies will be missed and Wales will find the going hard, which is only to be expected in a semi-final. Sir Alex Ferguson used to say confidence can take you anywhere in football and Wales’s must be at stratospheric levels. There is no reason from this position to doubt Wales can take the story all the way to a Paris conclusion.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Paul Wilson in Lille, for The Observer on Saturday 2nd July 2016 16.52 Europe/London

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