Lille: Wales manager Chris Coleman promised that his team were not coming to Euro 2016 “for a laugh”, but his players have been having the time of their lives in France.
From Gareth Bale’s training ground tomfoolery to Joe Ledley’s outlandish dance moves, the Welsh players have seemed immune to the pressures of major tournament football.
Friday’s quarter-final with Belgium is Wales’s biggest game since a 1-0 loss to Brazil in the last eight at the 1958 World Cup, but Coleman’s men are taking everything in their stride.
“With our team spirit, it’s like being with your mates on holiday,” said Real Madrid star Bale, lead prankster at the team’s Dinard base in Brittany, northwest France.
“Doing quizzes all the time, playing games. The fact we all enjoy spending time with each other, it helps with the downtime.”
Bale, 26, has helped set the mischievous tone of Wales’s approach to the Euro, cheekily taking aim at Group B rivals England before the tournament had even begun.
A Wales international since the age of 16, Bale feels perfectly at home in the national set-up and his relaxed attitude has rubbed off on his team-mates.
“He’s still one of the most immature players in the squad,” says right-back Chris Gunter in Welsh journalist Chris Wathan’s book ‘Together Stronger: The Rise of Welsh Football’s Golden Generation’.
“He’s relaxed and it relaxes everyone else. He’s got the same attitude as guys in the squad from League One or Two (England’s third and fourth tiers).
“If you came into the squad and you didn’t know, you would never guess which one was the most expensive footballer in the world — because he’s just one of us.”
Wherever the eye has fallen on Wales’s Euro campaign, there have been smiles and bonhomie.
Bearded Crystal Palace midfielder Ledley celebrated the 3-0 win over Russia in Toulouse with an on-pitch shuffle that quickly made a buzz on social media.
– Club feel -After beating Northern Ireland in the last 16, Wales’s players carried their children onto the Parc des Princes pitch, Bale’s three-year-old daughter Alba Violet delighting fans by taking shots at an empty goal.
During a walk along Dinard’s Plage de l’Ecluse beach this week, David Edwards and Sam Vokes — ice-creams in hand — were pictured playing football with local youngsters.
There was criticism after video footage emerged of the squad jubilantly celebrating Iceland’s shock win over England on Monday.
But left-back Neil Taylor said it was simply a case of wanting to see another of the tournament’s minnows do well.
“As a group of players, we’ve supported Iceland all along,” explained Taylor, who plays alongside Iceland midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson at Swansea City.
Underpinning the camaraderie is a formidable team spirit that reflects the fact many of Coleman’s players have been representing Wales for years.
Bale, Gunter, Taylor and Aaron Ramsey were playing for the Wales Under-17 team as far back as 2006.
The core of the current side came together during the latter years of former manager John Toshack’s tenure between 2004 and 2010.
It has helped to foster the familiarity of a club side, both on the pitch — where Coleman has been honing the team’s tactical systems for two years — and off.
The squad have been open about their extra-curricular activities in Dinard, which include card games, table tennis tournaments, quizzes and FIFA video game sessions.
It contrasts starkly with the approach adopted by British rivals England.
Defensive in press conferences, England’s players were reluctant to divulge what went on in the games room at the team’s Chantilly hotel or explain why certain players were being made to carry around a furry toy lion.
While England captain Wayne Rooney and his team-mates will watch the rest of the competition on television, Wales could be laughing all the way to the semi-finals.