Wales waited 64 years for the global spotlight to shine on their faces again but, when they finally stepped out of the shadows and into the glare of the World Cup, it proved to be blindingly and debilitatingly bright.
Was it stage fright that cost them in Qatar? Was it misfortune? Was it fitness? Perhaps it was all three of those issues at once, to varying degrees. The most painful truth, though, is that the required footballing basics — the team structure, the forward passing, the patterns of play — have simply not been there from Rob Page’s players.
For a country like Wales to excel at a tournament like the World Cup, every player on the pitch needs to be at their best. That cannot be said of one member of Page’s squad in these three games. From defence to attack there has been the stench of underperformance, with Gareth Bale offering nothing up front and the defenders looking uncharacteristically nervy at the back.
After all the excitement in the build-up, and all the joy of returning to the top table for the first time since 1958, there was only sadness on the faces of the Welsh players as they were shoved aside, almost with disdain, by England.
For Bale, especially, the second half would have been particularly gruelling. Forced off the pitch due to a hamstring problem, the greatest Welsh player of his generation could only watch through his fingers as his team were ripped apart in front of him. This is not how he envisaged one of the most seismic moments of his career.
At least it was not how his Wales career ended. “I will keep going for as long as I can and as long as I am wanted,” he insisted. “We go again in March.”
The great disappointment for him and Wales is that they have failed to make any sort of wider impact here. They came to Doha with plans to “put Wales on the map” but their performances — aside from the late surge against the United States — have failed to capture the imagination of the footballing world. Unlike in Euro 2016 and Euro 2020, they leave without making a mark. “We have not played very well,” admitted Bale.
Page has described it as a failure to reach their usual levels, and there is no doubt that their showings have been of a lower standard than we are used to seeing. They are often underdogs, of course, but they have always had some bite and snarl to go with it. In Qatar, those fighting qualities have deserted them on the grandest stage of all.
Why? The most obvious reason has been the form and fitness of Bale and Aaron Ramsey, who in the second game against Iran were not just struggling, but actively making Wales worse. That has never been the case before, and it was a truth so shocking that Page and the rest of the players seemed unable to accept it.
Another, less-discussed reason for their difficulties as a team has been the absence of Joe Allen from midfield. The 32-year-old came into the tournament without a single minute of football since September 17, and was only fit enough to start this final match of the group stage.
Such has been Allen’s desperation to play, he even installed a hyperbaric oxygen chamber in his house as he fought back from a hamstring problem. He desperately wanted this tournament, and Wales desperately needed him to be available for it. Just how much he was needed only became clear in the first two matches, when Ethan Ampadu was all alone in midfield.
In the first half here against England, Allen demonstrated his importance. For one, Wales had a discernible structure for the first time in the tournament. They also had a midfield, which England were struggling to play through before half-time. “In the first half the boys were excellent,” said Page. “We were very disciplined.”
From the moment Marcus Rashford ripped his free-kick into Danny Ward’s net, though, Wales were finished as a competitive force. Heads dropped, legs slowed. Goal number two arrived just a minute later, and there was worse to come. Instead of enjoying their chance to perform at a World Cup, the Wales players looked like they would rather have been anywhere else.
To be clear, it is no shock that England are better than Wales. That is a straightforward reality of football, and indeed of population size. But Wales have been punching above their weight for so long that it was strange to see them fail to land a single blow of note. “We are disappointed,” said Page. “We know we have not shown our true colours.”
The second half provided an emphatic reminder of how dispiriting Qatar has been for Page’s side. To get here was a wonderful achievement, and it will rightly be seen as such. Their supporters, as ever, sang to the end. But that will be no consolation for the players as they make the long, painful journey home, in the knowledge that they never did themselves justice.