Cardiff: Welsh star Gareth Bale and his team-mates paraded through the streets of Cardiff packed with an estimated 200,000 fans raucously cheering them on Friday as they returned from their Euro 2016 heroics.
Having exceeded even the wildest dreams of the Welsh — more used to seeing their rugby team triumph — and exposed England’s manifest failings at not even reaching the quarter-finals, the semi-finalists were expecting a good turnout.
However, the squad — minus midfielder Joe Ledley, who had the weightier matter of his wedding this weekend — were taken aback at the massive turnout which saw their bus top parade take far longer than expected from Cardiff Castle to Cardiff City Stadium.
The bus was emblazoned with the phrase “Diolch (Thank you). Together We Are Stronger.”
The Welsh squad — who had already been feted for reaching the Principality’s first major finals since the 1958 World Cup — had earlier landed at the Cardiff Bale Airport, named in the Real Madrid forward’s honour for the day.
The stadium was packed to the brim with 30,000 fans who also had the bonus of Welsh band Manic Street Preachers, who wrote and sang the official Wales Euro 2016 anthem.
Wales will become the top-ranked home nation on the back of their success at the Euros. They are seemingly set to climb into the top six less than five years after being down in 117th position.
Bale, who eventually had to give second best to Real Madrid team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo and his Portugal side in the semi-finals, said the fans had been like an extra man.
“To get a welcome like this was incredible. It shows how amazing our fans are,” said the 26-year-old, who scored three goals in the finals.
“The support we’ve had has given us that extra confidence to move on to the next level. Everything we’ve achieved we could haven’t done it without everyone here.
“We fought hard to qualify, all through the games we kept progressing and getting better as a team.
“We knew what we were capable of after getting to France, we said we didn’t want to make the numbers up.”
Bale couldn’t resist a final dig at England, whose come from behind win over the Welsh in the group stage was a false dawn for them as they went out in the last 16 to unheralded Iceland 2-1.
“We wanted to give it a real go – and we got ahead of the English!” said Bale.
They started the competition as big outsiders, but ended up winning a group which contained England, Slovakia and Russia.
Wales then beat Northern Ireland and Belgium, second in the FIFA world rankings, in the knock-out stages before losing to Portugal.