As Wales players and staff shared a moment with their fans after Tuesday’s 3-0 loss to England sealed their exit from the World Cup group stage, there was a feeling of a deeper ending than the usual closure that accompanies the conclusion of a team’s tournament.
It was, after all, Wales’ first World Cup for 64 years, the culmination of a nation’s long-held dream.
And as that dreamlike state faded to black under a desert night sky in Qatar, it felt like the end of an era – or at least the beginning of its end – like no other in the country’s history.
Simply put, Wales have never been better. For generations, Welsh football has been synonymous with, at best, narrow misses and tales of angst and, at worst, long stretches of dismal failure and outright apathy.
The longer the wait to qualify for a major tournament, the more the 1958 World Cup seemed like a curious antiquity from a past too distant to comprehend.
Then, after Scotland’s injury in 1977 and 1985, Romania in 1993 and a myriad of false dawns, the golden generation emerged, first as teenagers under John Toshack in the late 1900s. 2000s, before blossoming under the tutelage of Gary Speed and coming of age at Euro 2016 with Chris Coleman at the helm.
This summer in France has been gloriously cathartic, not only ending Wales’ 58-year wait for a major tournament, but taking the country to new stratospheric heights with a first semi-final.
Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen and the others followed that up with qualification for a second successive European Championship, but a second World Cup proved elusive – until this year.
Now, after three pool matches in Qatar, the adventure is over.
As Robert Page and his players cheered the Red Wall and savored a final rendition of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, the love and respect for each other was more evident than ever. Nothing could diminish the wave of national pride to see Wales back on this biggest stage of all.
And while nothing will change that fact, other than taking time to look back, Wales must now consider what comes next.
Wales can be immensely proud to have qualified for their first World Cup in 64 years and, at the same time, they can be deeply disappointed with their performances in Qatar.
The rise to prominence was deservedly epic given the historic significance, but, as Wales rose to the challenge in their three previous majors to reach the knockout stages, it proved to be in beyond them here.
There were many reasons for their failures, one of the most striking being the faded luster of an aging golden generation.
Bale, his country’s top goalscorer and holder of the national team in men’s football, has been the face of Welsh football for more than a decade, considered by many to be the greatest player to come from Wales.
Ramsey and Allen may not be seen in the same elated light but, as their selection to the UEFA Official Team of the Tournament for Euro 2016 illustrates, they have been an integral part of the Welsh renaissance.
At this World Cup, however, all three were pale imitations of themselves.
To be fair to Allen, his involvement was limited by a hamstring injury and, although Bale and Ramsey started all three matches, their declining club form and lack of fitness caught up with them in Qatar.
A tight hamstring forced Bale into half-time against England after touching the ball just seven times, while Allen limped towards the end with what appeared to be a recurrence of his injury. For two Welsh football icons, it looked like undignified ways to leave what was almost certainly their only World Cup.
Bale, who is 33, has already declared his desire to continue playing for Wales, while Allen, 32, and Ramsey, 32 next month, have yet to declare their intentions anyway .
They are all young enough to sway Welsh hopes of qualifying for Euro 2024 but, while they can help Wales to a fourth out of five major tournaments, their country won’t be able to rely on them forever.
“I’m not going to appeal that at the moment,” Page said after the England game.
“The good thing is we have games in March, Euro qualifiers, tough games. We’ll take a look at the squad, the players we have and, if there are any young players there down that we need to push and promote, now is the time to do it.”
Page must also consider his own role as Wales failed in Qatar.
The former centre-back has been rightly praised for the job he has done since taking over from Ryan Giggs in difficult circumstances, guiding Wales to the second round of Euro 2020 and taking his country to a first World Cup in 64 years.
Performance, however, has been faltering for some time. Wales have won just two of their 12 matches this year and even in those victories – in the World Cup play-offs against Austria and Ukraine – they were far from convincing.
As long as Bale continued to conjure up his moments of brilliance and Wales continued to deliver results, those underwhelming displays were tolerated – but a World Cup isn’t so forgiving.
Page got his team selection and tactics wrong in the first half in the opener against USA but corrected those errors at half-time to help Wales snatch a game no one late.
He said “lessons were learned” after that escape, but Page then started the next game against Iran in the same formation with just one change of personnel, and Wales suffered a dismal 2- 0 which all but ended their hopes of reaching the knockout stage.
Page said he took responsibility for the result and, for Tuesday’s final group game against England, he belatedly ditched his preferred three-man system for a 4-2-3-1. The change helped Wales keep the game scoreless until half-time, only for their tired players to succumb to a 3-0 defeat.
“Of course we look back in frustration, but it’s an incredible achievement for this group of players to get here in the first place,” Page said.
“We build on that. There’s a big picture here. We have to put things into perspective. We don’t have the pool of players that England have.
“And I think they will continue to do well in the tournament. For us, it’s an incredible achievement to get here.”
Almost nothing could alter the joy Wales felt at qualifying for a first World Cup after such an absence.
But not scrutinizing performances in Qatar and simply basking in the residual light of previous achievements would be doing Wales a disservice.
As a nation in a sporting or other context, Wales have never benefited from the global following they have enjoyed at this World Cup and, as we have heard from players, fans and politicians, it is a country that wants to project a dynamic and confident image of itself to the world.
So with that in mind, there should be requirements for these new historic standards to be maintained, for World Cup qualification to be something to aspire to on a regular basis.
Wales fans can rightly be disappointed with the way their side were eliminated in Qatar; there should be no need to repeat how proud they were to see their team finally play a World Cup.
For that, and what has come before in this golden era, Wales will be eternally grateful. Now there remains a hope or, better, a belief that there will be more to come.