PARIS: Two small British nations clash for the momentous prize of a Euro 2016 quarterfinals berth on Saturday when Gareth Bale’s Wales meet Northern Ireland in a post-Brexit clash in Paris.
Wales (population 3.1 million) and Northern Ireland (1.8 million) have never previously appeared at a European Championship finals, but they find themselves in the last 16 with the eyes of the continent upon them.
Having qualified above England as Group B winners following a brilliant 3-0 win over Russia, Wales enter the game as slight favourites and Bale admits that the team’s new status is still sinking in.
“We’ve come through a massive journey,” said the Real Madrid forward, who is the tournament’s joint top scorer with three goals.
“We’ve been in some bad places. We were 112th in the world and now we’re in the last 16 of the Euros. These are the days to enjoy.”
While the teams qualified in very different ways — Wales striding into the knockout phase as group winners, Northern Ireland squeezing through as the fourth of the four best third-placed teams — both had reason to thank their lucky stars for the serendipity of the draw.
With no previous major competition winners among the eight teams in the top half of the tournament, the odds on a team emulating Greece’s underdog triumph at Euro 2004 have shortened considerably.
The winners of Saturday’s game will play either Belgium or Hungary in Lille on July 1 and there is unlikely to be much trepidation in either the Welsh or Northern Ireland camp about that prospect.
Wales took four points from Belgium in qualifying and Northern Ireland did likewise to Hungary.
But Wales manager Chris Coleman scotched any premature thoughts of making a deep run in France.
“We can’t afford to look past the next game, nor can Northern Ireland. It’s all or nothing this game,” he said.
“Such is the quality of company we’re in at this tournament, if we ever dared to think the next game is a stepping stone to something, it’s all gone, we’re done, we’ll be on the next plane home.”
Best and Giggs
The supporters of both sides have captured French hearts — Welsh fans charming locals in Bordeaux, Lens and Toulouse; Northern Ireland fans creating the soundtrack to the tournament with their ubiquitous ode to striker Will Grigg.
But while Paris will be awash with beer and British songs on Saturday — as well as talk about the implications of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union — there is much separating the two squads.
Northern Ireland’s terrace darlings are Wigan Athletic striker Grigg, who has not even played at the tournament yet, and goalkeeper Michael McGovern, who spent last season fighting relegation from the Scottish Premiership with Hamilton Academical.
Coleman, on the other hand, can call upon Premier League quality in the shape of players like Aaron Ramsey, Ashley Williams and Joe Allen, while in Bale he possesses a potential player of the tournament.
“When you come to this level of the tournament you’re always going to have to deal with special players,” said Northern Ireland boss Michael O’Neill.
“But I’ve had that task as a manager before with having to try and deal with Cristiano Ronaldo, so I know how you deal with it.”
Both countries have produced football greats, but Northern Ireland’s George Best and Wales’s Ryan Giggs were condemned to the same fate of shining for Manchester United but never gracing a major international tournament.
Wales hold the upper hand in the rivalry, having won 15 games and lost seven since Northern Ireland began playing as an independent nation in 1953.
They have gone eight encounters without defeat since a 1-0 loss in Cardiff in May 1980, although Coleman’s side required an 89th-minute penalty from Simon Church to rescue a 1-1 draw when the teams last met in March.