Chris Coleman Gareth Bale Wales
Chris Coleman and Gareth Bales believe this Wales team can do big things in the World Cup in 2018. Pictured: Coleman congratulates Bale after the latter is substituted during the 3-0 win over Russia, June 20, 2016Reuters

Given time, the Wales players will look back at Euro 2016 and crack a smile, thinking, "Yeah, we did alright didn't we." For the here and now, the 2-0 defeat to Portugal in the semifinals will feel like a raw wound – painful – but Gareth Bale and co. can be extremely proud of their efforts, not only for creating history, but also for being, far and away, the best of the three Home Nations in the tournament.

In a Euro 2016 where England were expected to threaten for the title, Wales were the ones who went the farthest, and that too by playing some wonderful football. While England were timid and scared when the pressure was cranked up, Wales played with the kind of freedom you expect from a world or European champion – even if their celebrations after Iceland dumped their neighbours out in the last 16 wasn't in the best of tastes. While Wales failed to hit those exalted heights in the semifinals against Portugal, Euro 2016 could be the tournament that changes the course of their footballing history.

Wales will now expect to qualify for the World Cup in 2018, make it to the knockout stages in Russia, before, again, impressing when the European Championships come calling in four years.

"We have confidence and we don't want to turn up to one tournament," Bale, who scored three goals in Euro 2016, but could not quite find a way past Portugal goalkeeper Rui Patricio in Lyon on Wednesday, said. "It's about the bigger picture."

Chris Coleman, the Wales manager, echoed Bale's sentiment. "That has always been the target: qualifying regularly," Coleman said. "There was a psychological barrier we needed to go through to reach the first one, given it had been so long since our last appearance.

"We've now sampled tournament football, and it was such an experience. We want some more of that. We need some more of that. Now the one thing that will stop us from doing it again is ourselves. We're good enough. We have to have the same hunger and desire and we'll give the World Cup campaign a hell of a crack."

Wales showed tactical nous and the kind of just-know-what-needs-to-be-done ability that usually only teams with plenty of major tournament experience have. In their first two knockout matches – a gritty, hard-fought 1-0 win over Northern Ireland and a fantastic 3-1 result over Belgium â€“ Wales were the superior side by a distance, but in the semifinal, that lack of big-match experience finally told.

Up against a team who have reached the semifinals in four of their last five European Championships, including this one, Wales finally cracked under the pressure, with the opening goal, a wonderful header from Cristiano Ronaldo, proving the be the difference.

"We're disappointed, naturally, but they got the first goal and were a bit lucky on the second," Bale added. "We tried our hardest to get back in the game. We fought until the last second and we're sorry we couldn't get to the final but we gave everything."