A feature on Wales participation in the Toulon Tournament this summer.
The month of June already features heavily on the Football Association of Wales calendar this year with the finals of the UEFA Champions League and the UEFA Women’s Champions League set to be staged in the capital city of Cardiff. A significant event for the FAW, a team of staff have worked around the clock for the last year ensuring that nothing is left to chance, and hosting these two key events successfully will be a defining moment for the reputation of the FAW within the corridors of power at UEFA. Meanwhile, Chris Coleman’s national team had to Serbia for a must-win fixture in their frustrating 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign, but the focus will be on who isn’t there as Gareth Bale sits out this key match following his yellow card against the Republic of Ireland in Dublin last month.
But there is much more to June than listed above, and what will inevitably be a side-story to other events could prove to be one of the most significant changes to the FAW calendar. Between the 29th May and the 10th June, Wales will compete in the prestigious and well-respected Toulon Under-20 tournament alongside eleven other nations from across the world. The competition, staged in the south of France, has been expanded this year such is its success and respect, and will allow new Wales Intermediate team manager Robert Page the chance to see his young players tested in an intense and competitive environment ahead of their respective UEFA qualifying campaigns. This will in fact be the 45th year of the tournament, a tremendous feat considering the changes that have taken place across the world game in that time.
So what is so significant about Wales’ participation? The lack of major tournament experience for the senior international team has been well-documented, and 58-years of disappointment since 1958 was finally exorcised last summer as Coleman’s side made headlines across the world by reaching the semi-final stages of UEFA EURO 2016. The tournament was a major learning curve for everyone involved, from the players to the backroom staff, from dealing with the logistics of it all to the administrative red tape and the demands of the world’s media. Wales embraced the whole event as a collective unit, and while months of detailed preparation left few stones unturned in ensuring that the side were provided with the best possible environment, things would still be done differently next time as a direct result of the experience.
Such situations cannot be replicated or faultlessly planned for. Competing in the finals of a major tournament is demanding on all fronts, and while the Toulon tournament does not hold anywhere near the same status of the European Championships, it will offer the young squad the experience of being away for a period of time and playing a number of competitive games close together. The likes of Gareth Bale, Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen etc missed out on such an experience as they progressed through the youth ranks, despite coming close under Brian Flynn in 2008/09, and while they quickly adapted to the challenges they faced in France they had to learn very quickly. There is no doubt that the current crop of players coming through the ranks are blessed with talent, and adding tournament experience can only benefit them and Wales in the short and long-term.
Wales have appointed former international Robert Page to be responsible for the progression and development of the next generation. Replacing Geraint Williams, Page inherits a group of talented players, and his remit will centre around bringing the best out of them and ensuring they quickly establish themselves in the senior side. Giving youth an opportunity has proved to be the cornerstone of Wales’ success in recent years, and it is a blueprint the FAW will be keen to encourage and continue as they approach this exciting new era. Circumstances dictate that the primary focus of the summer will not be on the fortunes of Page’s young stars as they head to France, but that may not be a bad thing as he starts to implement his own ideas.
Last summer set a new standard for the national team, and future teams will inevitably be compared with Chris Coleman’s team of 2016, the side that will now be considered as the best Wales team ever for what they achieved. It is a tough act to follow, but setting high standards in football means that you are also setting high hopes and dreams. The fortunes of the likes of Bale and Ramsey in France has inspired players in the current Intermediate squads to emulate their achievements, and success in France this summer would be a great way to mark their arrival.