Gareth Bale: Wales’ man for the big occasion delivers again

Gareth Bale of Wales (C) celebrates with Neco Williams of Wales (R) and teammates after scoring their 1st goal during the FIFA World Cup Qatar - Offside
Gareth Bale of Wales (C) celebrates with Neco Williams of Wales (R) and teammates after scoring their 1st goal during the FIFA World Cup Qatar - Offside

With 15 minutes remaining, and Wales trailing 1-0 in their first World Cup match for 64 years, manager Rob Page shouted a question to his captain Gareth Bale. “Are you OK to carry on?” he bellowed, clearly mindful of the schedule that looms for a player who has started only two club games in six months and is now aiming for 90 minutes three times in eight days.

The emphatic “yes” should have surprised no one – all great players believe that they can personally retrieve any situation – and, seven minutes later, came the equalising goal that will not just live long in Welsh folklore but which also answered what had been the big looming pre-match question.

Could Bale’s body still keep pace with his mind and emotions to finally deliver on football’s greatest stage? The final verdict would be: “Yes … but only just.”

Indeed, the early evidence here had been of a man fighting admirably – but probably in vain – against the backdrop of a decline in the explosive athleticism around which Wales could once counter-attack to such deadly effect.

A total of 20 club football matches across almost 18 months would have been insufficient to maintain the full match sharpness of Bale in his prime after all – let alone this 33-year-old version – but that still does not mean that the flame has gone out completely.

For Bale was always much more than a fabulous runner and it would be different qualities – his footballing brain, character, touch, game-management and sheer aura – that would inspire Wales to a crucial point following a first-half in which they were outplayed.

“Irrespective of what he does at club level, he puts on performances that surprise,” said Page. “He is very clever – and he used all of his wisdom tonight. If he had gone full tilt from the start he probably wouldn’t have got to half-time.”

As it was, when a cross did come into the penalty area just as Wales looked beaten, Bale read it in an instant to get in front of Walker Zimmerman and provoke a foul from which he nervelessly also converted the penalty in front of the Red Wall of 3,000 ecstatic Wales fans.

Bale’s penalty record is far from perfect but, at a moment of such enormity, there were no Welsh doubts about who should step up.

“We knew who was taking it, one million per cent – he’s never let us down has he? It’s all about Bale and rightly so,” said Page.

Gareth Bale: Wales's man for the big occasion delivers again - Clive Mason/Getty Images
Gareth Bale: Wales's man for the big occasion delivers again - Clive Mason/Getty Images

From the famous “taxi for Maicon” night at White Hart Lane to an overhead kick in the Champions League final, it was a moment that will rank with anything Bale has previously achieved in his career.

And, as he tapped his heart at the end and took a prolonged moment to soak up the acclaim from the Welsh fans, it was difficult not to feel that the right man had scored this historic goal.

Bale once memorably said that his priorities were ordered “Wales, golf, Madrid” and, while there had been some mischief in that declaration, there has never been any doubt about the beloved place of his home country in any list.

“It’s just an amazing feeling – we showed real grit and determination to get back into the game,” said Bale who, having gathered his team-mates for a post-match huddle, believes that the manner of this draw will provide crucial momentum.

The more immediate question for Page is how he now might best utilise his talisman. Bale had begun as the most advanced of the Wales team but he barely saw the ball during a first-half that was summed up when, clearly annoyed by his lack of involvement, he chased back to deliver a sliding challenge from behind to dispossess talented Valencia midfielder Yunus Musah.

Referee Abdulrahman Al Jassim whistled for a foul and showed  Bale a yellow card, to his disagreement.

Bale had even continued the argument into the tunnel at half-time and it was hard at that moment to imagine how the match would unfold into anything other than a deeply frustrating evening. The introduction of a big number nine figure in Kieffer Moore, however, completely changed the dynamic and, crucially for both Bale and Aaron Ramsey, also largely occupied the US defence.

It provided much needed space and will surely be the starting formation for Wales against Iran on Friday for a match that already feels likely to be decisive to their final chances of progressing.