Wales took a massive step towards ending their 58-year wait for a major tournament appearance by beating Belgium 1-0 for one of the greatest victories in their history.
Gareth Bale’s 17th goal for his country on the occasion of his 50th cap settled an incredible Euro 2016 qualifying contest played out before a sell-out 33,000-plus crowd at Cardiff City Stadium.
Belgium came into the game top of Group B, ranked second in the world and having lost only one of their last 17 matches – last summer’s World Cup quarter-final against Argentina. But Eden Hazard and company could not find a way through an organised home defence, even if they often laid a siege on the Welsh goal after Bale’s 25th-minute strike.
Wales – who have not qualified for a major tournament since the 1958 World Cup – now have a three-point lead at the top of Group B with four games left to play. The victory also means Chris Coleman’s side will take their place among the top seeds for next month’s World Cup draw in Russia.
Belgium were quick into their stride and Christian Benteke was inches away from converting Dries Mertens’ cross, with Wales struggling to get hold of the ball.
Neil Taylor’s mistake then allowed Mertens to set up Radja Nainggolan for a 20-yard shot which would have arrowed into the bottom corner of the net but for Wayne Hennessey’s strong hand.
Hazard was at his inventive best and fired a snapshot over the bar, but Wales were gifted a goal against the run of play. Belgium failed to clear a corner and Radja Nainggolan headed the ball back into Bale’s path, the Real Madrid player coolly chesting the ball down and slipping his shot past Thibaut Curtois in the visitors’ goal. It was Bale’s fifth goal of the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign and only the second Belgium had conceded in the competition.
Belgium chose to go more direct after the break as Romelu Lukaku replaced Mertens and formed a physical front-two pairing with Benteke. Hazard’s corner almost found Benteke at the far post, but Ashley Williams just did enough to protect his goal before Nainggolan and Kevin De Bruyne whistled efforts just wide.
Nicolas Lombaerts was booked for felling Bale, the second caution of the match after Joe Allen had picked up a booking to rule him out of the next qualifier in Cyprus in September.
Belgium’s frustration was growing, Benteke kicking out at Aaron Ramsey and Jan Vertonghen showing his dismay at De Bruyne’s wayward pass, and Belgium sent on an extra attacker, Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco, for the final 20 minutes.
The limping Bale was forced to leave the action with three minutes left but he had proved his country’s hero again and, amid wild scenes, he celebrated with his team-mates at the final whistle.