- Associated Press - Saturday, December 12, 2015

Ryan Giggs. Ian Rush. Mark Hughes. Neville Southall. Just some of the Wales greats who never managed to cap their distinguished careers by playing at a major international tournament.

Thanks mainly to the stunning form of Gareth Bale, Wales’ current crop will get the chance.

The Welsh reached their first major tournament since the 1958 World Cup by finishing a comfortable second place in a qualifying campaign in which they only lost once and conceded just four goals.

It’s a remarkable turnaround for a nation that was languishing in 117th place in the FIFA rankings in 2011, below the likes of Antigua and Barbuda, Gambia and the Faeroe Islands.

The revival started under the late Gary Speed, who preached a more attractive and expansive style of play. And it was completed by his successor and close friend Chris Coleman, who has one player in particular to thank for Wales qualifying its first European Championship finals.

Bale scored seven goals in the qualification campaign, many of them winners. There is a concern that Wales over-rely on the Real Madrid star but, for the moment, Coleman is happy to ride the wave.

“Thankfully we’ve got a world-beater,” Coleman says of Bale. “It’s not just the goals, it’s everything. It’s his whole manner when he’s wearing a Wales jersey . All over the pitch we’ve excelled but he’s the icing on the cake.”

Wales climbed to as high as No. 8 in the rankings recently but will be in Pot 4 in the draw. The big boys will want to avoid them.

Here is a look at Wales’ top three players and its coach, Coleman:


GARETH BALE - The world’s most expensive footballer has been Wales’ inspiration, either in the unusual position of lone striker or from a central attacking midfield position. Has ups and downs for Real Madrid but rarely has a bad game in the red of Wales, which will be depending on Bale to advance from its group.


AARON RAMSEY - Has recovered from a career-threatening broken leg in 2010 to be a regular for Arsenal - no small feat considering its star-studded midfield - and a vital player for Wales. At his best, Ramsey is one of Britain’s most prolific midfielders, with many of his goals coming from long range.


ASHLEY WILLIAMS - One of the most under-rated center backs in the Premier League, probably due to his refusal to leave his beloved Swansea to join a bigger club. Captain and organizer of a defense that conceded just four goals in 10 qualifying games - bettered only by Spain, England and Romania.


COACH: CHRIS COLEMAN - Deserves credit for heading up the rebuilding of Welsh football after the death of Gary Speed in November 2011, stamping his own style on the team when critics were calling for his removal, and then finding a system to get the best of Bale. Coleman has turned Wales into a solid international team that could cause a surprise at the championship.

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