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In the week that the campaigns for the United Kingdom's referendum on European Union membership were launched, the nation's representative football teams have given a resounding 'yes' to European participation.
Wales, N.Ireland emerge from England's shadow

In the week that the campaigns for the United Kingdom's referendum on European Union membership were launched, the nation's representative football teams have given a resounding 'yes' to European participation.

Wales and Northern Ireland have joined England in securing a place at next year's European Championship in France, meaning the UK will send three teams to a major tournament for the first time in 30 years.

Scotland have missed out, but should the Republic of Ireland prevail via the play-offs, there will be four teams from the British Isles at a major competition for only the second time after the 1958 World Cup.

It is part of a wider pattern of breakthroughs by smaller nations, with Northern Ireland (population 1.85 million) and Wales (3.06 million) qualifying alongside Iceland (329,000) and Albania (2.89 million).

But while the tournament's expansion from 16 teams to 24 was always going to allow the lesser lights to shine, neither Wales nor Northern Ireland qualified through the back door.

Northern Ireland finished top of their group, while Wales were leading Group B -- ahead of the Premier League heavyweights of Belgium -- until Saturday's 2-0 defeat against Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The loss in Zenica was Wales' first of the qualifying campaign, but Cyprus' 2-1 win over Israel in Jerusalem meant that Chris Coleman's side qualified for their first major tournament since the 1958 World Cup.

Gareth Bale, who described the result as "the best defeat of my life", has been central to Wales' success, top-scoring with six goals and playing a part in eight of the nine goals his side have scored.

Given a free role akin to his new, central positioning under Rafael Benitez at Real Madrid, the 26-year-old responded with decisive strikes in wins over Andorra, Belgium and Cyprus.

But he would not have been in a position to settle matches were it not for a new-found defensive robustness -- the fruit of an innovative 3-5-1-1 formation -- that has seen Wales concede only four times in nine matches.

Coleman has also been able to build on the success of his predecessors John Toshack -- who blooded players like Bale, Aaron Ramsey and the captain, Ashley Williams -- and the late Gary Speed, who laid the foundations for Wales' resurgence before his death in an apparent suicide in November 2011.

"When Gary Speed took over, I think he realised that standards had dropped off the field," former captain Kevin Ratcliffe wrote in The Observer.

"He added preparation and put the right people in place, and Coleman has carried that on. We are a proper international country now, not –- as we used to call it –- 'Rag-ass Rovers'."

Northern Ireland were handed a relatively benign draw, but they were nonetheless the fifth seeds in Group F and, like Wales, had never previously qualified for a European Championship.

Expectations were low after a World Cup qualifying campaign that had seen them finish second-bottom of their group and which featured a humiliating 3-2 loss to Luxembourg in September 2013.

But with Norwich City's Kyle Lafferty mirroring Bale's performances by netting seven times, Michael O'Neill's men took the group by storm, qualifying with a game to spare.

Lafferty was branded an "out-of-control womaniser" by Palermo president Maurizio Zamparini after leaving the Sicilian club in 2014, but, carefully handled by O'Neill, the 28-year-old has become a talisman for his country, replicating the exploits of David Healy in previous qualifying campaigns.

The Northern Irish squad is a blend of wizened old pros and up-and-coming talent, the experience of stalwarts such as defenders Chris Baird (33) and Gareth McAuley (35) supplemented by the verve of players like young Manchester United defender Paddy McNair (20) and 24-year-old midfielder Oliver Norwood.

O'Neill's man-management has also been a key factor, helping the former Newcastle United midfielder rouse his players to climb from 88th to 35th in the FIFA ranking.

"There was a period when Michael went a number of games without a win, but he stuck with it and never gave up," said Nigel Worthington, one of O'Neill's predecessors.

"The Irish Football Association also stuck with him and they should take credit for that."

Source: AFP/Tom Williams
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