When I was six years old, I wanted to be English. It was 1990. England reached the World Cup semi-finals, everyone fell in love with Paul Gascoigne and it felt completely natural to align yourself with Bobby Robson’s valiant but vulnerable team.

I didn’t know that Wales, the nation of my birth, had failed to qualify for the tournament, finishing below West Germany, the Netherlands and Finland at the foot of Uefa qualifying Group 4, but following months of careful prompting by my quietly despairing father, I came to realise that England was not my country. When Wales agonisingly missed out on a place at the 1994 World Cup, after a 2-1 loss to Romania in November 1993, I stretched my Wales shirt over my pillow and cried myself to sleep.

To be Welsh and a football fan in the 1990s was to live a life of constant quiet disappointment. Wales seemed trapped in a cycle of wretchedness, forever finding new and inventive ways of being stuffed by just about every team in Europe. They lost 7-1 to the Netherlands, 6-4 to Turkey, 5-0 to Georgia. They played a friendly against Leyton Orient and lost.

They wore strange, lurid away kits made by obscure brands like Lotto and Kappa that looked like they’d been fished out of a JJB Sports bargain bin. Even a player as demonstrably great as Ryan Giggs seemed diminished by association with Wales (when he could be bothered turning up), traipsing across the continent looking permanently sad and confused, a shy computer programmer obliged to go on a Magaluf stag weekend with a rowdy group of men he didn’t know.

Football was exciting in the 1990s – the Premier League was taking off, you could watch Serie A on TV and the Champions League was beaming the glamour of Juventus and Real Madrid into our living rooms – but watching Wales felt like a shameful secret, like going home to act out elaborate historical role plays with your parents while your mates were drinking cider and chatting up girls in the park.

It tied in with a general feeling of naffness about Wales in general, reinforced by the fact that wherever you go in the world, so few people know anything about where you’re from. You wouldn’t arrive in a foreign city and expect to find a Welsh theme pub. We have no bagpipes, no kilts, no Loch Ness Monsters. Many of Wales’s cultural indicators only serve to emphasise what a strange little country we are. Our aversion to wearing coats in cold weather. Our enthusiasm for group singing. Our inexplicable attachment to bootcut jeans.

When people do know something about Wales, it’s often a Wales that bears little resemblance to the country you grew up in – a Wales where everyone talks like a Gavin & Stacey character and the world stops whenever the Welsh rugby team are playing. Euro 2016 was a chance to show people a different Wales.

My Euro started in the charming city of Bordeaux, on the sunlit banks of the Garonne, where Wales played their opening game against Slovakia on June 11. I was there for work, reporting on the tournament for my employer, Agence France-Presse, but I was partly there as a fan. My dad had managed to find a ticket and took the spare bed in my twin room. He had bought a red Wales T-shirt for the occasion, which was something of a departure. This is a man for whom T-shirts are too scruffy even for bed.

The night before the game, we watched France’s opening match against Romania at a café on Place de la Victoire. I'd arranged to meet two groups of friends: one from Neath, one from the Valleys. The Neath cell were Swansea fans, the Valleys contingent Cardiff. They eyed each other suspiciously. There was a time when tensions between Cardiff and Swansea fans made Wales away trips fraught with the potential for flash points. But nothing sloughs away old enmities like the prospect of watching your country play at a major tournament for the first time in 58 years. We ate and drank together.

I'd spent much of the day gazing aghast at images and video footage of the violence between England and Russia fans, local youths and police in Marseille. Surrounded by Wales supporters who had spent most of the day toasting their arrival in the bars and brasseries of Bordeaux, I felt keenly aware of the risk of trouble.

After watching France beat Romania, we moved across the square to another bar, where the Wales party was in full swing. Young Welsh fans, many sporting the red, green and yellow bucket hats that would become their visual trademark, were huddling together and breathlessly running through their repertoire of songs: odes to Joe Allen, hymns to Joe Ledley, thudding chants of, “Hal! Robson! Hal Robson-Kanu!” Passing motorists were obliged to run a gauntlet of outstretched hands and plastic pint pots, the passage of each car prefaced by the "oohs" usually reserved for the run-ups of opposition goalkeepers.

I'd been worried about the potential for violence, but in keeping with the experiences of most fans during the tournament, the atmosphere could not have been more good-natured. French fans celebrating the hosts’ victory joined the fray. Welsh fans attempted to sing the Marseillaise. French fans had a stab at the Welsh anthem. Two Slovakia supporters, a little older, a little rounder than their companions on the square unfurled their country’s flag, closed their eyes and bellowed their own national hymn into the Bordeaux night. Someone produced a bottle of champagne. Then a second. Then a third.

The game itself, the following evening, seemed unreal. The far-left corner of Bordeaux’s elegant new stadium was a sea of vermilion and the rendition of “Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau” (“Old Land of My Fathers”) that preceded kick-off echoed with a resonance that spoke of nearly six decades of yearning. There was a thought, too, for Gary Speed, whose name was chanted during every Wales game.

After 10 minutes, Gareth Bale put Wales in front with a 30-yard free-kick that plunged over the wall before maliciously swerving left, leaving the Slovakia goalkeeper Matúš Kozáčik clutching thin air. A double change tipped the momentum in Slovakia’s favour and the substitute Ondrej Duda equalised on the hour. But just as the Wales fans were beginning to reflect that perhaps a draw wasn’t such a bad result after all, Aaron Ramsey darted past Martin Škrtel on the edge of the Slovakia box, the ball popped up and Hal Robson-Kanu scuffed it home. In the Wales end, bedlam. The sky glowed red over the Garonne that night. The Wales fans on Place de la Victoire were too stupefied to celebrate.

Part of the thrill of being in France, for Wales’s travelling supporters, was the opportunity to establish a brand new fan identity. The Republic of Ireland’s Green Army and Scotland’s Tartan Army both have well-earned reputations for blending Olympic-level alcohol consumption with winsome conviviality and, although they went 30 years without seeing their own team reach a major tournament, Northern Ireland’s Green and White Army are renowned in the United Kingdom at least for the boisterousness of their support. Prior to Euro 2016, Wales's fans had no real reputation to speak of. The Scots, the Irish and the Northern Irish define themselves in opposition to England’s “Ten German Bombers” brigade (that small but noisy – and invariably shirtless – minority), and Welsh fans in France fell into line with their Celtic cousins. They would be raucous, they would be songful, but above all they would be friendly.

Despite having their patch overrun by around 20,000 bucket hats and pairs of bootcut jeans, Bordeaux’s citizens were charmed. Welsh fans declared themselves supporters of Girondins de Bordeaux and pledged to make return visits at the earliest opportunity. The Bordeaux Tourist Office’s Twitter account lavished praise on the red hordes on a daily (if not hourly) basis. L’Équipe said the Welsh support was “magnificent”. Bale dubbed the fans “the Red Wall”. The left-back Neil Taylor admitted, “I’d have loved to have been a Wales fan at this tournament.”

England were up next, at the boxy Stade Bollaert-Delelis in Lens. It was not a game most Wales fans had been looking forward to. The background noise, the Battle of Britain headlines, the awful risk of losing against your smug older brother. The knowledge that the Russian thugs who had ambushed England's fans in Marseille might be lurking unseen ahead of their team’s game against Slovakia in neighbouring Lille did little to lift the mood.

As it transpired, Wales produced their worst performance of the competition. They took the lead, with another long-range Bale free-kick but, as the players themselves later acknowledged, they did not trust themselves to take the initiative in the game as they had throughout the qualifying campaign. Jamie Vardy equalised before Daniel Sturridge squeezed a 92nd-minute winner between Wayne Hennessey and his near post.

Wales’s final Group B game, against Russia in Toulouse, was their only match at the tournament that I didn’t attend. I ended up watching it with a group of England fans at a pub in Paris called – in what I took to be a fatal omen – The Cross of St George. They were only showing England’s game against Slovakia, so a friend lent me his phone to watch Wales. It was a surreal contrast. While all around me England fans tore their hair out over one of the most frustrating displays in their team’s recent history, I watched agog – earphones in, eyes glued to the tiny screen – as Wales turned in what at that stage was perhaps the most accomplished performance they had ever produced.

Slovakia had been awkward adversaries and the England game brought with it a huge amount of baggage, but Russia were the perfect opponents: punch-drunk brawlers who approached the contest thinking they were prize heavyweights. They blundered towards Welsh territory, gaps as wide as the Champs-Élysées between their lines, the ageing centre-backs Sergei Ignashevich and Vasili Berezutski hopelessly exposed, and Wales picked them off with dead-eyed efficiency. Allen’s piercing pass released Ramsey to break the deadlock with a cool, dinked finish. Taylor scored his first international goal shortly after and Bale applied the coup de grâce from Ramsey’s pass.

Coupled with England’s goalless stalemate against Slovakia, Wales went through as group winners, taking up a place in the kinder half of the draw. Already, a path to the final was opening up. Their last 16 opponents were Northern Ireland. “Will Grigg’s on Fire” versus “Please Don’t Take Me Home”. A grimly attritional encounter at Parc des Princes was settled by a 75th-minute own goal from West Brom's Gareth McAuley.

And so to Lille. By this stage, the expectations of just about every Wales fan had been met. Simply qualifying for a big tournament had been the aim for so long that hoping for anything beyond that initially felt a bit greedy, like asking to see the dessert menu as the waiter delivers your starter. In finishing above England in the group (and then seeing them humiliated by Iceland), then beating Northern Ireland and reaching the last eight (matching the achievement of the 1958 World Cup team in the process), Wales had polished off the cheese and biscuits, tipped a couple of glasses of port down their throats and were now contemplating, in the shape of Eden Hazard’s Belgium, a magnificently calorific 3am kebab.

As impressive as Wales had been in qualifying and in the tournament to that point, there hovered the fear that the wheels might yet fall off. That Chris Coleman’s men might get found out. That they might somehow conspire to Wales it all up. When Radja Nainggolan smote Belgium ahead from 30 yards at a rain-drenched Stade Pierre-Mauroy, those worries swam into sharp focus. Of course Wales would come up short in the end. Of course this absurdly talented group of Belgian footballers would finally show themselves to be equal to the sum of their parts. Of course the natural order would be restored.

Or maybe not. Wales caught their breath, cleared their heads, and then very calmly and very deliberately forced Belgium onto the back foot. With Robson-Kanu occupying both opposition centre-backs and the presence of Allen and Ledley in central midfield freeing Bale and Ramsey to launch raids deep into the Belgian half, Wales seized control of the game and after Thibaut Courtois had repelled a close-range effort from Taylor, Ashley Williams equalised with a thumping header. They were not going to repeat the mistakes of the England game. They were not going to die wondering.

Galvanised at half-time by the introduction of Marouane Fellaini for Yannick Ferreira Carrasco, Belgium made a purposeful start to the second half and went close three times. But Coleman’s men weathered the storm and in the 55th minute the greatest moment in Welsh football history arrived.

Spotting Ramsey’s inside-out run behind Jason Denayer, Belgium’s left-sided centre-back, Bale picked out the Arsenal midfielder with an arcing pass from halfway. Ramsey brought the ball down delicately with his right foot, allowed Toby Alderweireld to come across to him and then dug out a flighted pass towards the penalty spot. The ball was slightly behind Robson-Kanu, obliging him to check his run and gather the ball with his back to goal. He had an opponent either side of him (Fellaini to his left, Thomas Meunier to his right), Denayer tracking across the six-yard box to provide cover and Taylor screaming for the ball on the edge of the box. A lay-off to Taylor seemed the only option, but with one supple twist of his hips, a Cruyff turn had taken Meunier, Fellaini and Denayer out of the game – not one, not two, but three fire engines dashing to the wrong fire. It had the beautiful simplicity of a mathematical equation: three defenders had barred Robson-Kanu’s path to goal and now there were none. He planted a shot past Courtois with the inside of his left foot and tore towards the corner flag in celebration.

Belgium should have had a penalty when Williams trod on Nainggolan’s foot, but the referee Damir Skomina allowed play to continue. With four minutes remaining Sam Vokes met Chris Gunter’s cross with a picture-book centre-forward’s header that nestled inside the left-hand post. Wales would play Portugal for a place in the Euro 2016 final.

In the stand behind Courtois’s goal, Welsh fans wept openly. Later, in the mixed zone, Welsh journalists who have covered the national team for year after dismal year looked at each other in disbelief. Robson-Kanu, who had been released by Reading 24 hours earlier, was the epitome of calm. “Obviously I’m in the box, just trying to make space to get a shot off,” he said when asked to describe his life-changing goal. “Back to the goal, they’re thinking I’m going to set the ball, and I’ve Cruyffed and put it in the net.”

Football can be a silly and inconsequential thing sometimes, but for small countries who reach major tournaments – Wales, Iceland, Costa Rica, New Zealand – it represents nothing less than an opportunity to tell the world who you are. The Wales fans who had lived through the myriad disappointments of the previous 60 years – Joe Jordan’s handball, Paul Bodin’s penalty, Bobby Gould – had only one wish, which was to see the team qualify for a major tournament. Just one would have done. But to see them in the semi-finals at a European Championship was wonderful beyond belief and actually to be in France for it, surrounded by hoarse, misty-eyed, incredulous Wales fans – the same members of that embarrassing, secretive club you all used to keep quiet about – felt like the greatest luck in the world.

Prior to the semi-final against Portugal, I stayed briefly in Dinard, the picturesque resort on Brittany’s northern coast where the Wales squad spent the tournament in blissful isolation. Welsh flags were abundant, fluttering from flagpoles and dangling from café doorways. It could have been Tenby or Mumbles or Rhos-on-Sea (the weather was certainly crap enough). The atmosphere within the Wales media centre was every bit as relaxed and informal as the players’ post-match celebrations with their children. When Bale and Coleman sat down to speak to the media, they did so with broad smiles on their faces.

The journey came to an end in Lyon. After an even first half, Portugal scored twice in three minutes early in the second half and Welsh hopes of reaching the final vanished. It was a meek exit, in a less than full stadium, in front of a crowd that never really got going, but there were mitigating factors – fatigue, primarily, and also the absences through suspension of Ramsey and Ben Davies – and it could have been much worse. Wales had not been thrashed. They had not been eliminated in heart-breaking fashion. They would not experience the cruel, lingering exposure of defeat in a final.

Well before the dust had settled, a consensus hardened. Swansea fans who have seen their team rise from the brink of non-league football to become Premier League perennials and League Cup winners and Cardiff supporters who have experienced the joys of an FA Cup final appearance and promotion to the top flight were unanimous: this was as good as it got. Wales's players and their once derided manager had tested their mettle against Europe's finest and proven themselves to be one of the best teams on the continent, capturing imaginations from Dublin to Dubrovnik along the way. Wales had two players in the team of the tournament and neither of them was Gareth Bale. They had won as many knockout games inside 90 minutes in one week as England had in 20 years. Against all expectation, that forlorn gathering of you and your socially inept mates had become the biggest party in town and all the cool kids were knocking on the door and politely asking if they could come in.

It is difficult to imagine what Wales’s fans experienced at Euro 2016 being surpassed. Even if the team reach another major tournament semi-final, it will not be accompanied by the same glorious sense of novelty as what happened in France. The current squad has plenty of life left in it yet and Wales embark upon the 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign as Group D's team to beat, but it will be a long time before the stars align again with the same startling exactness as they did this summer. It was an experience 58 years in the making and it was worth every single second of the wait.