LYON: Gareth Bale believes Wales made a nation proud in their unprecedented run to the Euro 2016 semi-finals and backed Chris Coleman’s men to reach the World Cup in Russia in two years’ time.
Bale’s Real Madrid teammate Cristiano Ronaldo ended Welsh dreams of reaching Sunday’s final as he powered home the opener before teeing up Nani for a quickfire second as Portugal emerged 2-0 victors in Lyon.
However, Bale reflected upon an incredible rise for Wales from 117 in the world rankings less than five years ago to their first ever semi-final in a major tournament.
“It obviously hurts now, because it’s fresh, but we’ve been on an amazing journey, which I think the whole nation has enjoyed,” said Bale.
“I hope they have enjoyed it as much as us.
“We want to thank them all for their support, it’s been incredible, our fans and staff have all been incredible.
“These are moments none of us will ever forget.”
Coleman called on his players to maintain the desire that took them so far in France for a World Cup qualifying group featuring Austria, Serbia and the Republic of Ireland which starts in September.
“The hunger is there more than ever,” insisted Bale.
“It obviously hurts to lose, we have enjoyed the experience together, but there is a lot more to come and a lot more to improve on.
“Come the World Cup qualifiers, which are not too far away, we’ll be raring to go.
“We wanted to test ourselves against the best countries in the world, we have done ourselves and our country proud and we can hold our heads high and give it a go again.”
One of Wales’ few regrets was that they went down without one of their star performers during the tournament as Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey was missing through suspension.
And he called on Coleman to stay on as boss to build press on with the momentum built up over the past four years.
“It’s brilliant. You can see the amount of fun we have on the pitch, we enjoy playing together.
“We’re working hard for each other and playing with freedom, so all the players enjoy playing under him.”
West Ham defender James Collins had come into the Wales side due to the suspension of Ben Davies.
He kept Ronaldo quiet for long spells, but lamented the split second when the three-time world player of the year showed his true class.
Ronaldo rose majestically above the Welsh defence to head the first goal.
“I was enjoying my dual with Ronaldo, the first-half went very well,” said Collins.
“I don’t think he really did anything amazing in the game, but he scored the first goal which gave them heart.
“He’s a world-class player who has performed again on a world-class stage.”
However, Collins backed Wales to learn from the experience and go onto achieve “massive” feats in the future.
“No one thought this young team, which will have a lot more success, would get this far, so this isn’t the end, this is the start of something massive.”