From despair to here: What it means to Wales

Wales beat Belgium 3-1 to reach their first major semi-final and Mark Pitman, who has followed the team through qualifying and in France, explains just what it means to the nation.

Neil Taylor & Hal Robson-Kanu (Wales)

It is difficult to put into context the sheer scale of what Wales have achieved in France. Generations of talented Welsh players have lived in the shadows of 1958, the last time the team featured at a major tournament.

Yet this current crop have now set a new mark for others to follow, and whatever happens during the last week of UEFA EURO 2016, this side have become the greatest in Welsh football history.

Their exploits have already inspired so many, and while the fans that have made the sacrifices to follow the team around France have produced so many memorable scenes, there are many, many others back in Wales lost in the moment.

More and more fan parks have been hastily constructed in towns and villages to supply the demand of those supporting from home. The celebrations have increased with each passing victory, encouraging more and more youngsters to dream of one day emulating their heroes.

Allen: ‘It’s going to take something special to stop us’
Allen: ‘It’s going to take something special to stop us’

Gareth Bale naturally attracts the headlines but he is no superstar in these ranks, because this is a group of players that have come through the dark times together and are now enjoying their moment in the sun. There has been pressure on manager Chris Coleman, yet he has stood tall and strong throughout, staying true to his beliefs.

Fine-tuning a tactical system to extract the very best from the small pool of players available, Coleman has won over the Welsh football press and public. The 46-year-old is receiving the universal plaudits he deserves.

The team themselves are the real star, however. The celebrations that accompany every goal, every win, are not stage-managed. Rather they are emotional releases of joy born out of years of pent-up frustration.

Coleman euphoric after Wales win
Coleman euphoric after Wales win

As teenagers, these players suffered harsh criticism as Wales slumped down the rankings; they suffered collective pain with the death of former manager Gary Speed; they have grown into adults together through these experiences. They have an unbreakable bond which they are not ashamed to admit.

The 'Together, Stronger' strapline is no mere marketing gimmick: it defines this side. More than that, it extends far beyond the dressing room, since this Welsh squad is a collective unit of players, fans, staff, media and more. This is the ride of a lifetime for everyone to savour.

Brought together by Coleman's charm and Bale's modesty, the country have taken the team to their hearts, and Welsh football is never likely to be the same again. The magnitude of what they have accomplished cannot be underestimated – and in Wales it never will be.