Gareth Bale moved Wales closer to a first major tournament since 1958 on Friday, scoring to secure a 1-0 victory over Belgium that lifted the country top of Group B in European Championship qualifying.
The Real Madrid star controlled on his chest a misguided back-header by Radja Nainggolan, swivelled and sidefooted a shot through the legs of goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois in the 25th minute at Cardiff City Stadium.
Wales then produced a robust defensive performance to thwart the world’s second-ranked team and clinch one of its greatest wins in a generation.
The unbeaten Welsh moved above Belgium into first place with four games left of the campaign. They hold a three-point lead and, more importantly, are five points clear of third-place Israel, which lost 3-1 at Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The top two teams qualify automatically for next year’s tournament in France.
“I can’t put it into words,” said Bale, the world’s most expensive player. “We battled in every area and we deserved the win in the end.”
Cyprus beat Andorra 3-1 and is tied on points with Israel. Bosnia-Herzegovina is a point further back in fifth, with Edin Visca (2) and Edin Dzeko the scorers against Israel.
The best third-place team from the nine groups also qualifies automatically. The other eight third-place finishers go into the playoffs.
The 1958 World Cup was the last major finals involving Wales, even though the country has had top players down the years such as Ryan Giggs, Ian Rush and Mark Hughes.
Led by the irrepressible Bale, the current generation is making its mark under coach Chris Coleman and has won three and drawn of its games for its best ever start to a qualifying campaign. Such is Wales’ rise that this win over Belgium could ensure the team is among the top seeds in the qualifying draw for the 2018 World Cup in July.
Wales’ defending and organization at the back, which restricted Belgium’s star players like Eden Hazard and Kevin de Bruyne to half-chances, was as crucial as Bale’s composed finish at the other end.
“We defended like demons,” Coleman said. “We just dug in. I told the players that to do anything tonight, we needed everything. We got that tonight.”
Bale’s goal was his fifth in qualifying and only the second Belgium has conceded.
“We know what position we are in,” Bale said, “but we know there is still a long way to go.”
Wales next plays Cyprus away in September, and is at home to Israel in October.