For several generations of Welsh fans, the wait to watch their team on football’s biggest stage will finally end, too.
Gareth Bale made his international debut at 16, in May 2006, in a pre-tournament friendly against a Trinidad & Tobago side about to head off to a World Cup that would put the Caribbean nation’s tally of World Cup appearances on a par with Cuba, Haiti, Kuwait, Indonesia — and Wales, whose own qualifying campaign had been another disaster. Between the 2002 and 2006 editions, Wales won just three out of 20 matches, against Belarus, Northern Ireland and Azerbaijan.
A second World Cup, and first since 1958, had seldom seemed further away, but with Bale’s gradual evolution, from full-back to forward, Tottenham jinx to Real Galactico, came Wales’s at first steady and then, in France in 2016, accelerated rise as a genuine footballing force.
As, on the continent, Bale made waves, at home, football shed its counter-cultural tag and leapt into the mainstream — a fact the nation’s sporting psyche may well be particularly grateful for today, with an immediate chance to salve the wounds of Saturday’s rugby defeat by Georgia in Cardiff.
So much of the journey of this Wales team has been about the collective: about bucket hats and national pride; about unity, not just on the pitch or in the dressing room, but between fans and a nation, the red shirt and the red wall. But do not let that underplay the importance of the individual, specifically the top-knotted, golf-loving one.
Bale and, to an only slightly lesser extent, Aaron Ramsey have consistently brought the quality needed to elevate a crop of good, but not great, footballers; the old adage about a team being greater than the sum of its parts not entirely appropriate when two players have had such a multiplying effect. Take Bale and Ramsey away and have Wales, on average over the past decade, been blessed with squads more talented than, say, Scotland? Perhaps, but not by much.
Of the rest of the old guard, Wayne Hennessey is expected to get the nod over Danny Ward in goal, despite his lack of playing time and the latter’s recent upturn at Leicester. Joe Allen, though, is out, after Robert Page yesterday admitted defeat in the race to get the Swansea midfielder, who has been out since September, fit in time. That should mean Ethan Ampadu stepping into midfield and Chris Mepham lining up in the back-three, while up front the in-form Kiefer Moore will likely be supported by Dan James and, of course, Bale.
In his role as Fifa’s chief of global football development, Arsene Wenger gave a press conference on Saturday, where among his many tactical predictions for the trends of this tournament — more pressing, fewer low blocks, defenders playmaking, attackers defending — was a rather more human narrative. “It’s a tournament of the last chance for the players who dominated football for the last 15 years,” Wenger said. “It’s now or never.”
Naturally, the mind raced to Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, who at 37 and 35, are surely in the last-chance saloon when it comes to the one trophy that has evaded them both. But Bale falls into the same bracket, a marquee figure of the era, with five Champions League wins, crucial goals in two finals, a true phenomenom who in his prime years got arguably as close as anyone has to the coattails of that duopoly.
For Bale, who at times looked likely to join George Best, Alfredo Di Stefano and Laszlo Kubala among the greats never to grace the greatest stage, ‘now or never’ might not mean lifting the World Cup, but it seems almost unthinkable that on this huge occasion, this clutch performer will leave Qatar without leaving some notable mark on the tournament.
This World Cup has been Bale’s near-sole focus, probably for far longer than he ought to admit. How much life is left in the old dog, who has played less than half-an-hour of club football since the last international break? Perhaps not a great deal, but the 33-year-old has effectively played in three games of significant consequence all year — the qualifying play-offs against Austria and Ukraine, and last month’s MLS Cup final — and made match-defining impacts in them all.
For Wales and Bale, the long wait is over. Now it’s the USA, Iran and England. In that order.