Gareth Bale has praised Wales’s show of “pride and passion” at Euro 2016 and has urged the side to target regular qualification for major tournaments in future after their remarkable campaign was brought to a juddering halt at the semi-final stage by Portugal.
Bale’s Real Madrid team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo inspired Fernando Santos’s side to victory, imposing himself on the contest after the interval to propel the Portuguese into the final, against either France or Germany on Sunday. The Welsh, hampered by the absence of the suspended Aaron Ramsey, bowed out to a defiant rendition of Land of my Fathers, chorused by their support, having excelled at their first tournament appearance in 58 years.
“It’s very disappointing to be so close to the final but this is a proud moment for us,” said Bale. “We have achieved a lot. We had pride and passion and the fans are the best in the world, by far. We wish we could have done it for them but we’ve given everything on the pitch, off the pitch. We’ve tried to enjoy the experience of the tournament and we’ve had a taste of it now, so we look forward to the future.
“We have confidence and we don’t want to turn up to one tournament. It’s about the bigger picture. We’re disappointed but we’ll pick ourselves up. We’re a proud bunch and we’ll stick together, lift the spirits and go again. Nobody expected us to get this far but we’re very proud and have no regrets. We’ll continue to battle on.”
Wales face Austria, Serbia and the Republic of Ireland in qualification Group D to reach the World Cup in Russia in two years’ time, with the aspiration to capitalise on their performance at Euro 2016 by becoming regulars at major tournaments duly echoed by the manager, Chris Coleman. “That has always been the target: qualifying regularly,” he said. “There was a psychological barrier we needed to go through to reach the first one, given it had been so long since our last appearance.
“We’ve now sampled tournament football, and it was such an experience … such a healthy vibe from people of all nations. It’s been completely different from what we expected, a different challenge, and you can’t predict what it’s going to be like unless you’ve already been through it for six or seven weeks: we faced all sorts of challenges as a squad and as a group and we’ve come through them all up to this one. We want some more of that. We need some more of that.
“Now the one thing that will stop us from doing it again is ourselves. We’re good enough. We have to have the same hunger and desire and we’ll give the World Cup campaign a hell of a crack. Whatever the end date of this tournament was going to be, it was never going to be the end date for this group of players. They’ll be there a lot longer than I will be.
“I’m immensely proud of them all. To get to the semi-finals is amazing but it’s the nature in which they’ve achieved that. The only game when we didn’t impose our identity on the game was the England match in the group, which we lost, but they’ve shown it in every other match. You can only ask someone of their best. That’s it. If you lose and you’ve given your best, that’s how it goes. This was another test, another challenge. We didn’t come through it but we’ve come through plenty of others. I’ve told them I’m proud of them, the nation’s proud of them. Tomorrow they’ll be proud of themselves.
“We know what we’re good at. We won’t change what got us here in the first place. We have to go into the next campaign with the same hunger and desire as we’ve had in the last two or three years, and that’s what I’ve told them. I’m prouder of this team than any team I’ve been involved in because I know what they’ve sacrificed to get to this stage. They couldn’t give any more. I’m sure they’ll go back to Cardiff to a nice welcome, and they deserve that.”
The Wales manager admitted Ramsey’s suspension had affected a team who had shown signs of fatigue. “But I’d find it difficult to say to any of my lads that they could have done any more,” added Coleman. “They left everything out there. We came up short tonight but this bunch don’t usually come up short. It would be ludicrous of me to criticise any one of them.
“Portugal were criticised heavily for the way they’d played, their style, for not winning games in 90 minutes. But to be in a semi-final you have to have something about you and it’s not just Cristiano Ronaldo. They’ve got a good togetherness, a good plan, and they stick to that plan. They can win the final, whether that’s against France or Germany. Sometimes talent is a huge distraction. You have to have a bit of mettle as well to have a team and I saw a team tonight in Portugal.
“They’re a good team. They’ve done very well and have every possibility in the final. It’s not always the best players that win a tournament. It’s the best team. The best team spirit, togetherness. Yes, you must have a bit of talent to get to a final, but Portugal are resilient, hard to play against, and if you’ve got the man playing as a striker, their No7... well, he’s not bad. He’ll always make a chance or score a goal. They’ve got a good chance, Portugal.”
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