Rob Page and his Cymru squad arrived at the team base in Baku, Azerbaijan on Monday with the focus firmly-fixed on Saturday's opening match of UEFA EURO 2020 at the Olympic Stadium against Switzerland (2pm).
Cymru v Switzerland
UEFA EURO 2020
- Saturday, 12 June 2020
- Bakı Olimpiya Stadionu, Baku
- KO 14:00
- TV: BBC One, S4C
The recent friendlies against France and Albania may not produced a goal for Page's side but they didn't result in any injuries either, and with Dan James recovering from a bout of sickness that ruled him out of the two games and Tom Lockyer almost back to full fitness, the 26-man squad are ready for the challenges ahead. Progressing through a group that also includes Turkey and Italy will be no easy task, but Cymru have proven in the past that anything is possible.
The side head into the EURO finals on the back of a successful and undefeated UEFA Nations League campaign. Promoted as group winners with five wins and a draw from six games, the resilience, character and belief within the squad was displayed in the number of late goals that were scored in the competition, and it represented a winning mentality that was forged from the success achieved the last time Cymru performed on the biggest stage.
The memories of EURO 2016 never fail to bring a smile to every member of the red wall. Each and every fan who made the trip to France during that summer has a unique story that they will never tire of telling, and the iconic images of the victory celebrations and eventual semi-final heartache will forever define an era in our international history. Just referencing Bordeaux, Belgium, Chris Coleman and Hal Robson-Kanu immediately transports us all back to the summer that generations before had only dreamed of experiencing. The wait had been long, but it was worth it, and it did not disappoint.
Harry Wilson and David Brooks are two players expected to play an important role for Cymru at the EURO finals this summer. Teenagers in 2016, Wilson travelled to France as a fan, supporting the team in a bucket hat and a match-worn U21 shirt. Brooks watched the story unfold on TV while holidaying in Magaluf. The likes of Neco Williams, Ben Cabango, Ethan Ampadu, Rubin Colwill, Dylan Levitt and others that have featured for the senior team since that glorious few weeks were still in school as Coleman's side made history.
For previous generations, international football and Cymru was associated with frustration and disappointment. Fine margins traditionally worked against us, and watching every major tournament since 1958 from a distance became an accepted part of following the fortunes of the national team. Embarrassing defeats and miserable campaigns were occasionally interrupted by moments of false hope, but the reality of failure quickly returned, and our low expectations were naturally restored. This was our Cymru, but our belief of a brighter future was enough to maintain our unconditional love.
But something changed during the course of the EURO 2016 qualifying campaign. The belief was suddenly justified as the likes of Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen went toe-to-toe against the best of Europe and showed that Cymru could compete. The 1-0 victory over Belgium in Cardiff in June 2015 was a huge step towards realising our dream. The tide had turned and Cardiff City Stadium became the hottest ticket when Cymru were in town. The red wall carried the side through for the remainder of the campaign both at home and abroad, and the success left a deep and positive impression.
Over 20 players have made their senior international debuts over the course of the last three years, and this generation now only associate Cymru with the success that has been achieved in the last two EURO qualifying campaigns. The frustration of missing out on a place at the 2018 World Cup finals was suddenly a surprise when previously it had been the natural expectation. We now win games with late goals because our players believe that Cymru should be successful, and that the standard set in the summer of 2016 is what is expected of them as the current custodians of the shirt.
It is well-documented how EURO 2016 inspired a nation. From the junior players across the country who can now strive to emulate the success they had witnessed that summer, to the supporters and volunteers who invest their time and money in the hope of experiencing something special through their involvement in the game we all love. But it also inspired the current Cymru squad, and while EURO 2016 was a step into the unknown for those that went before them, a high level of expectancy has now been set. Success is now our expectation, and together, we are stronger.