In its first major tournament in 58 years, Wales will aim to go one better than its long-remembered run at the 1958 World Cup when taking on Belgium in the Euro 2016 quarterfinals in Lille. A goal from Brazilian legend Pele ended Wales’ hopes at the quarterfinal stage in Sweden and brought about a painful drought from the international stage amid plenty of near misses.
But having got back to the big time, Wales has already made a sizable impact in France. After topping its group ahead of England, Wales edged past Northern Ireland in the first knockout round. And with Portugal awaiting in the semifinals, there is now a real opportunity to make history.
“It's not a feeling that Wales can't lose, they weren't meant to be here in the quarterfinal, we're underdogs,” manager Chris Coleman, who is expected to have defender Ashley Williams available, said ahead of Friday’s match. “It's not the way we see it. It's a huge challenge, but just another one in a line of them we've already met.
“I'm not going to play the occasion down. We know what's at stake, we know we've earned it, and it's a great place to be. Since the 1958 quarter-final, we have to put this down as the biggest game our country's been involved in.”
Wales has reason for confidence going into its clash with Belgium. The two sides faced off twice in qualifying, with Wales taking four points, including a 1-0 win in Cardiff secured with a goal from Gareth Bale. And the Real Madrid star has been to the fore again at Euro 2016, scoring three goals.
Belgium’s stars have also come to life in recent games. After a disappointing opening loss to Italy, Belgium bounced back with a 3-0 win over the Republic of Ireland, fueled by two goals from Romelu Lukaku. In the quarterfinals, Marc Wilmots’ side then soared to a 4-0 victory over Hungary thanks to starring performances from Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne.
Already this is Belgium’s best performance at a European Championship since 1980, when finishing as runner-up. But having been knocked out in the quarterfinals of the 2014 World Cup, there is now big pressure to go further, particularly in a quarterfinal in which it will be a sizable favorite.
Belgium’s prospects have taken a blow, however, with two of its starting defenders ruled out. With Thomas Vermaelen already sidelined through suspension, Jan Vertonghen has now joined him on the list of absenteeswith an injury that will rule him out of the rest of Euro 2016.
“Jan Vertonghen turned his left ankle at the very end of training and has torn two ankle ligaments,” Wilmots said. “It's a sporting tragedy for him. He is out of the tournament, he's out for around six to eight weeks. It is tricky but we've got alternatives. The players are ready to step in. It's a unique opportunity. These things happen in tournaments.”
Kickoff Time: 3 p.m. EDT
TV Channel: ESPN2
Live Stream: Watch ESPN