Wales were languishing at a lowly 117th place in the FIFA world rankings in August 2011. Now, less than four years later, they are set to enter the top ten for the first time ever when the new FIFA rankings are released on 9 July.
This lofty position will also see Wales among the top seeds when the 2018 World Cup qualifying draw is made later this summer. In the last World Cup qualifying campaign they were bottom seeds alongside countries such as San Marino, Andorra and Luxembourg.
This turnaround is nothing short of extraordinary. The 1-0 win, last Friday, against Belgium, the team currently ranked second in the world, has highlighted what great strides the side has made.
So what are the reasons for the vast improvement?
How has a team that was so poor, relatively recently, become one of the best national sides in the world?
The late and tragic Gary Speed has been widely recognized as the catalyst for this improvement. After a string of poor results John Toshack stepped down as Welsh boss in September 2010. Speed then succeeded him in December of that year.
With just four months of managerial experience under his belt, at Sheffield United, his stewardship started indifferently. He lost his first game against the Republic of Ireland 3-0 and also lost his first competitive game 2-0 against England. After this stuttering start things then began to pick up under Speed and his methods started to pay dividends.
Wins soon started to arrive, and against some tough opposition. Montenegro were beaten, Switzerland were beaten and Bulgaria were beaten amongst others. As a result, just two months after being given the world ranking position of 117th, they were soon ranked 45th. That’s a whopping 72 places for those who can’t do the maths that quickly. Wales were then awarded the title of ‘biggest movers’ for 2011.
Of course we all know his tenure ended in tragic circumstances after he was found hanged at his home in November 2011. However, what he did for the Welsh team can’t be underestimated.
A large part of why they are where they are now is down to his impressive managerial skills at the helm.
Succeeding his late friend was no easy task for Chris Coleman. Taking over in those circumstances presented unique and difficult challenges and, for a time, it looked as though the team was suffering in terms of results.
However, like Speed, after Coleman’s difficult start soon began to pick up. After a difficult start to their 2014 World cup qualifying group that included their heaviest defeat in 16 years, a 6-1 mauling against Serbia, latter stages of this qualifying campaign started to show promise.
It has all now come together for the Euro 2016 qualifiers and for that Coleman deserves his fair share of credit. After six games played, they currently occupy top spot in group B with 14 points, three more than second placed Belgium. They look perfectly placed to qualify for their second major tournament in their history, after the 1958 World Cup.
Any successful team has that little bit of magic within its squad. Wales are fortunate in that they happen to have two genuinely world class players in their group right now, both of whom can only get better.
Aaron Ramsey has gone from strength to strength in the last couple of years following his horrific leg break. He has fast become one of Arsenal’s most important players and is carving out a name for himself as one of the best box-to-box midfielders in the world. Gary Speed gave him the captain’s armband at the age of twenty, highlighting just how highly thought of he is.
Though he is no longer captain he still plays a vital role within the Welsh setup and is a key component to their success on the pitch. There is also, along side Ramsey, a certain Gareth Bale. You might have heard of him.
The attacker is the world’s most expensive player who possesses the fitness levels and running power of a god. He may not have had the best season of his career at Real Madrid but he is still one of the best players there is anywhere.
Add him to any side and there’s bound to be a difference. It’s this stardust that can turn your losses into draws, and your draws into wins.
You cannot underestimate the current Welsh captain’s value. While he may not be showbiz Williams has established himself as one of the best centre backs in the Premier League since Swansea City were promoted.
He’s been with the Swans since 2008, back in their League One days, and has just got better and better. His leadership qualities are vital as well making him an extremely important cog in the Welsh machine. If you have a well-marshaled defence then the sky is the limit for your team. At the moment Wales have prowess up front and at the back.