Heading into Euro 2016 time two teams so closely linked by geography (and in this case even politics) will always draw a lot of interest when meeting in a major international event. But in addition to proximity, it was the specific outlook for both teams that made the England-Wales fixture a priority for so many Euro viewers.
For England, Euro 2016 has been all about setting the right tone for the years ahead, and the Wales match was immediately seen as part of that process. Having underperformed in the last few major international events, the Three Lions are now stocked with youthful talent to mix in with the likes of Wayne Rooney and manager Roy Hodgson. Euro 2016 has been seen as an opportunity to start moving back toward international prominence and put forth a competitive face ahead of the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
For Wales, the goals were a little bit more direct, and a little bit more personal. Namely, beat England and advance out of the group. It must be strange (and frustrating) to play for a national football team in the shadow of arguably the most passionate football nation on Earth, and one got the sense heading into the Euro that because of this the Welsh players would love nothing more than to beat their neighbouring juggernaut on the big stage. For his part, Gareth Bale—arguably the best player on either roster—even went so far as to directly antagonise the English. Speaking in advance of the tournament, he claimed the Welsh would show more pride than their opponents.
On Thursday, however, it wasn’t to be for the Welsh. Despite an admirable effort, they fell to the desperate English side by a score of 1-2.
The action began quite well for Wales and Bale, actually, as the Real Madrid star got off to a blistering start. He established a quick, threatening pace from the opening whistle and largely helped to establish his side as the aggressor. Fittingly enough, he scored the match’s first goal on a well struck, looping free kick (which frankly Joe Hart could have saved, but didn’t get a good enough hand on). The goal sent the passionate Welsh supporters into a frenzy and put England on its heels.
Much as they haven’t been able to do in recent years, however, England answered back in fine fashion.
Somewhat surprisingly, it was Wayne Rooney who set the tone for the English. Heading into the match, betting tipsters identified Rooney for a pivotal role, suggesting that where and how he played against Wales’s 3-5-2 formation could help decide the match. The attitude behind that prediction was actually somewhat negative regarding Rooney, but as it turned out the English veteran found a way to control the midfield for much of Thursday’s match. He took set pieces, directed the action moving forward, and probably had the best shot on goal of the day that didn’t actually score. It was a superb outing from Rooney when England needed him most.
But the goals had to come from somewhere, and the English first got on the board,thanks to a very quick reaction from Leicester City star Jamie Vardy. After coming on for Harry Kane at half, Vardy was in the right place to take advantage of a ball batted around in front of the net, and put in the equaliser in the 56th minute. That seemed to swing momentum back in favour of the Three Lions, but Bale and Co. Still managed to hold a draw—at least until extra time.
In the 91st minute, it was another prominent substitute—this time, Daniel Sturridge—who found the back of the net for England. Questioned sometimes for a lack of consistency but never for his ability, Sturridge delivered a moment that he called “unbelievable” and that could be remembered in a few years as the point at which a new wave of English international contention really began. It was an amazing moment for England, even if it left international supporters rooting for the upset disappointed.
For his part, Gareth Bale remained proud following the match, encouraging his teammates to keep fighting. And Wales still stands a strong chance of advancing, should they perform well in their final group stage match against Russia. But as for what appeared to be the main goal of beating (and humiliating) England, Bale’s crusade fell short this time.