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HEART OF FOOTBALL

A tight-knit bunch who will make the Fathers proud

If there was anything more moving than Hal Robson-Kanu's "Cruyff" turn and shot that helped Wales knock Belgium out of the European Championship, it was the scene and the sound at the end.

The entire Welsh squad ran over to their fans in the crowd. And rather than hubris, rather than shouting, the players and the fans simply sang their anthem: Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau - Old Land of My Fathers.

There were echoes of that in the fan zone at the foot of the Eiffel Tower that was lit up in the green and red of Wales. And further echoes in Cardiff, their capital city, where 20,000 or so were out in the night and, as Welsh folk do, singing their hearts out.

One more step for the Dragon, the mythical beast that is on the Wales flag.

One more stride for the underdogs at the Euros, where Iceland (population 330,000) and Wales (3 million) make nonsense of the belief that size matters most in the winning of games.

Bale's demeanour this past month has demonstrably shown that he takes pleasure in being "one of the lads". It is that core attribute that tells us that teamwork is a far, far greater thing in football than being talented but not united.

Wales, of course, has a truly global star in Gareth Bale. And he, a Real Madrid champion, next pits his wing skills against the other superstar of Madrid, Cristiano Ronaldo.

They meet in the semi-final on Wednesday when Wales face Portugal in Lyon. And if Wales can eliminate Belgium, the so-called Golden Generation team, why would they fear Portugal, who have come this far without winning a single game in regulation time?

I can tell you one thing: If the Portuguese dare not try to win matches, and to simply grind out draws hoping to progress on the dreaded penalty shoot-out lottery, they will not find the Dragons the least bit obliging in playing stalemate football.

The Welsh don't do things that way. They dare to score.

But here's a funny thing. Robson-Kanu isn't strictly a Welshman. Nor is Ashley Williams, the captain who headed the first goal against Belgium. And neither is Sam Vokes, the substitute who came on to finish off the scoring, also with his head.

Robson-Kanu is a Londoner. Williams was born in the West Midlands of England. Vokes hails from Southampton.

They all qualify for Wales by virtue of family history. None is representing the Land of their Fathers. They trace their Welsh blood back a further generation, to grandparents.

And they are not alone. Nine members of the 23-man squad representing Wales are Englishmen born and bred.

But, the way that Fifa and other sports recognise "nationality" each and every Wales player is legitimately qualified to represent the land of their choice. There are many, many players around the world, scores of them Brazilian cast-offs, wearing other nations' colours under passports of convenience.

But in Wales' case, the bloodlines are all genuine. So, I can vouch, is the now forgotten man who years ago set this particular ball rolling his country's way.

Way back 30 years ago, Brian Flynn, a native of Port Talbot in deepest South Wales, was the smallest Welsh national team player. He stood just 1.61m and he scurried around with a mixture of effervescent enthusiasm and skilled application.

Flynn loved his land. Now 60, and long retired on 66 caps, his greatest contribution came after he played. He built a Welsh Under-21 squad on the emerging talents of Bale, of Joe Allen, Aaron Ramsey and the current goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey.

His love of country is their love of country.

But while scouting for others to develop into a youth structure the Football Association of Wales was building, Flynn started to look at players with Welsh-sounding names in the youth, even the academy squads of English clubs.

He, or his successors in Wales, then had to entice the young lads across Offa's Dyke, the boundary that divides Wales from England.

So you might blame Flynn somewhat for England's early exit and Wales' wonderful progress?

Big Brother England had their chances. Robson-Kanu (the player without a club after Reading did not renew his contract) had a much earlier setback in his career when, at 15, Arsenal told him that he would not make the grade there.

He'd been a Junior Gunner since he was 10.

That's the way it goes. Nobody at Arsenal, and nobody at Reading, thought he could do a Cruyff turn and trick three defenders at once. And to be fair, Wales probably never saw it coming either.

In 34 games, many of them on the opposite wing to Bale, Robson- Kanu has scored a total of four goals, two of them in France.

He's on fire because he's part of the "family", the closely-knit group of players that Flynn found, Gary Speed then fashioned into a squad for Wales, and now Chris Coleman manages.

Following those bloodlines was only the start of the process. Robson-Kanu has belonged to the Wales set-up for six years. Williams has been there even longer, eight years, and Vokes for nine years.

Their careers might never have taken off the way that Bale's deservedly has done, but all of them seem to be brothers of long standing in the Welsh camp.

That is what is carrying their country, or the country they give their soul to, on this remarkable journey.

Bale doesn't act the superstar the way that Ronaldo so visibly believes himself to be among the Portuguese.

Bale's demeanour this past month has demonstrably shown that he takes pleasure in being "one of the lads". It is that core attribute that tells us that teamwork is a far, far greater thing in football than being talented but not united.

Belgium's Golden Generation has not once looked the sum of its parts. Eden Hazard put on one fabulous show when he ran rings around the Hungarians. But he, as captain of the Red Devils (a nickname Belgium share with Manchester United) is not really a leader, and certainly has no unity around him.

Wales have two leaders, at least. One is Williams, who holds the defence together and as we saw on Friday leads from the front when required. The other is Bale, who doesn't need or want the armband - and who is in his element singing with the chorus.

Land Of My Fathers, indeed.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 03, 2016, with the headline 'A tight-knit bunch who will make the Fathers proud'. Print Edition | Subscribe