Euro 2020: Wales dream of recreating highs of Euro 2016 against Switzerland in Baku

By Dafydd PritchardBBC Sport Wales in Baku
Euro 2020: Wales v Switzerland
Venue: Baku Olympic Stadium Date: Saturday, 12 June Kick-off: 14:00 BST
Coverage: Live on BBC One and S4C, live commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live, BBC Radio Wales and Radio Cymru, the BBC Sport website and app, plus live text and score updates

It was the moment a nation had dreamed of for 58 years. As the sun shone in Bordeaux on 11 June 2016, Wales had finally arrived.

Absent from major finals since the 1958 World Cup, Wales had endured a barren, often painful, half a century before their opening match of Euro 2016 against Slovakia.

Five years and one day on, they begin their Euro 2020 campaign against Switzerland in Baku on Saturday. This will be different, but the memories of that afternoon in France will come flooding back.

It was glorious, the realisation of what had seemed a hopeless dream - catharsis for the 24,000 Welsh fans who had travelled to Bordeaux to form the Red Wall and pour their souls into the national anthem, Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau.

This time, they are likely to travel to Azerbaijan in their hundreds rather than their thousands. The pandemic means the Football Association of Wales and Welsh government have advised supporters not to travel, though there will still be those undeterred by the costs and quarantines and determined to reach this transcontinental tournament's eastern outpost.

Those who make the journey will do all they can to help Wales' players harness the emotion of the occasion, though some will be looking to stay a little cooler than they were in Bordeaux.

"I was one of the people who probably got carried away. It was hard not to," says midfielder Jonny Williams, who started against Slovakia and is one of eight Wales players from Euro 2016 who remain in the squad for this year's tournament.

"The whole day, the team meeting beforehand when we were shown messages from family, saying how proud they were. When we left the hotel, there were fans everywhere and you could see how much it meant to everyone that we were just there."

The long build-up, the heightened anticipation and a stirring national anthem had the Wales players in a frenzy by kick-off and, with just three minutes gone, it looked as if their long-awaited return would be derailed before it had begun in earnest.

Slovakia's Marek Hamsik weaved his way through flailing Welsh defenders and was ready to celebrate after shooting into what seemed an open net - until Ben Davies appeared from nowhere with a goal-saving block.

Ben Davies' incredible block
Ben Davies joined Tottenham Hotspur in a swap deal that took Gylfi Sigurdsson to Swansea City

"It was an important moment but there was a lot that went on after that," says the Tottenham defender, another who remains in the Wales squad five years on.

"That was just a small factor in what got us to where we did in that tournament. That's football - everybody is expected to step up at some point and at that moment I did.

"Honestly, in those moments as a defender it's is your job. You are there to stop it and that's what I did."

Davies' modesty should not obscure the significance of his intervention. Wales settled after that early scare, beat Slovakia 2-1 and embarked on a spectacular campaign in which they confounded all expectations to reach their first semi-final.

That summer changed Welsh football forever. Five years on, this is a different Wales side.

"This time around there is a lot of excitement and a lot more expectation I would say, but we are ready for it," says Davies.

"It's going to be emotional - it has to be at this level. You play with a lot of pride a lot of emotion playing for your country.

"I don't think there is ever a time really in football when you are playing for your country that you can be too emotional."

Williams, however, will be trying to contain his excitement.

"I'm a bit more chilled this time," he says. "I feel a bit more relaxed."

A tale of two 'golden generations'

By reaching the semi-finals at Euro 2016, Wales' players finally lived up to the tag under which they had been labouring for years - the golden generation.

Some in Wales had been eager to bestow that moniker on them before even qualifying for the tournament, such was the excitement about players such as Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen and Ashley Williams all reaching their peak together.

And while use of the term was initially premature, there can be little doubt now that the 2016 side are the greatest in Welsh history.

In their first match at Euro 2020 on Saturday, Wales face a Swiss team who have struggled with a similar billing in their homeland.

After winning the 2009 Under-17 World Cup and finishing as runners-up at the 2011 Under-21 European Championship, Switzerland had hoped to be flourishing in senior tournaments by now.

Current captain and Arsenal midfielder Granit Xhaka featured in both those teams, while Liverpool playmaker Xherdan Shaqiri and Borussia Monchengladbach goalkeeper Yann Sommer are among the many members of this Euro 2020 squad who played for the under-21s in 2011.

Despite qualifying for seven of the past eight senior finals - one as co-hosts of Euro 2008 - Switzerland have failed to go beyond the second round, and patience is wearing thin.

"There is a 'do it now' mentality because Sommer, Xhaka, Shaqiri and others are in their prime or slightly past it, so this is their time to deliver," says Nicola Martinetti, a journalist for Swiss newspaper Corriere del Ticino.

"There was a big expectation on this generation and they haven't delivered yet.

"I think fans and everyone around the team would see it as a huge disappointment if they don't make it out of the group stage."

External expectations may not be so burdensome for Wales. Having been pitted against Switzerland, Turkey and Italy, simply getting out of the group would be considered a success by many supporters and pundits.

Inside the squad, however, it is a different story, with players setting the second round as a minimum target.

"What we did last time, nobody ever expected us to do that, so some people might be expecting a similar sort of thing again," says Ramsey.

"We have expectations on ourselves but we'll take it one game at a time and see if we can recreate something similar.

"We're hungry for success again."

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