Wales is a country that often feels sidelined, but he became an ambassador that couldn’t be ignored
It was thrilling. Having a player in a Wales shirt who was capable of the miraculous, with a passion for representing his country that crackled like electricity. For close to 17 years, we revelled in the terror he sparked in opposition fans, a panic that during the peak of his career seemed to throb from the away end in Cardiff.
Even when time had caught up with him and he was no longer the dynamic, explosive winger of his youth, Gareth Bale’s abilities with a dead ball still caused opposition pulses to quicken and mouths to dry if Wales were awarded a free-kick anywhere in the final third.
I remember being at Hampden Park in March 2013, and the delighted reaction of the Scotland supporters when Bale failed to reappear after half-time, some agricultural defending from the home team having aggravated an old ankle injury. “They’re terrified of him,” we said, laughing and shaking our heads in disbelief. Of course they were. The late winner he’d scored against Scotland in Cardiff the previous October had been a goal special enough to grace anyone’s highlights reel. He was world-class. At his best he was absolutely scintillating. And he was ours.
One hundred and eleven caps and 41 goals ago, a 16-year-old Gareth Bale made his debut for Wales at a time when the landscape around the team was very different. In 2006, when he was making his first, tentative steps in professional football, the atmosphere around the team was despondent, our failure to qualify for Euro 2004 causing a hangover that seemed impossible to shake off.
The team that came so close in that campaign had broken up, the senior players who agonisingly lost to Russia in the playoff retiring almost simultaneously, leaving John Toshack with no choice but to pick increasingly young and inexperienced sides. There seemed to be a conveyor belt of teenagers, but we worried none would make the grade.
Crowds were low, results were dismal, enthusiasm was almost nonexistent. I’d love to go back in time to reassure the few thousand true believers who rattled around the Millennium Stadium in those days; “It’s fine. He has made his debut. That boy will change Welsh football for ever. So now … we wait.”
He scored a free-kick against Slovakia in his third international, a 5-1 hammering that was Wales’s worst home defeat since 1908. Playing at left-back for his club, a folly met with utter disbelief by Toshack and the Wales intermediate team manager Brian Flynn, the visionaries instrumental in playing him further up the pitch, Bale’s progress was initially gradual. By about 2010it was clear he was something very special, a potent mix of technical virtuosity combined with physical power and breathtaking pace that simply dazzled.
As a 14-year-old he could run 100m in 11.4 seconds. A few years later, he was making Premier League defenders look like statues. During his imperial phase, Bale was blessed with an abnormal ability to impart his own will on the outcome of a match, with insouciant disregard for the protestations of the opposition. His blend of sporting ingenuity and craving to win could prompt the unorthodox; the goal he scored in the Copa del Rey final of 2014 where it was easier for him to run off the pitch and round the Barcelona player trailing in his wake was a carbon copy of something he’d done for Wales against Iceland a few months before. By this point, he felt different, a generational talent. Someone who could succeed for his country where the superstars of the past had failed.
It takes time to reel off the significant goals he scored for his country. The qualifying campaign for Euro 2016 was full of them. Failure to qualify for a major tournament had been a festering wound in Wales for 58 years and bordered on a national obsession, but Bale seemed to thrive on the responsibility. Wales scored 11 goals in that campaign, Bale contributing seven and providing assists for another two.
He settled our nerves in the first game of Euro 2016 by scoring after 10 minutes and when the euphoria in the stands died down the 24,000 Wales fans who’d made the trip to Bordeaux looked at each other and wondered which celestial being to thank. Who else could score in those circumstances? It had to be him.
And so began a journey to the semi-finals, an astonishing achievement for a country of 3.1 million people and no previous tournament experience, unless you counted the handful of survivors from 1958 who, by then, were in their 80s. For a few years he was one of the best players in the world, the world’s most expensive footballer and we loved him for being so unquestionably, undeniably Welsh. A country that often feels sidelined suddenly had an ambassador that couldn’t be ignored.
He means everything to Welsh people because for the past 10 years or so he’s provided a bulletproof shorthand to explain where we are from, as football stardom permeates corners of the globe that no other sport can reach, and that even Hollywood fame or pop music finds difficult to compete with. He has done far more to put Wales on the map than any individual in my lifetime.
We don’t ask for much from our superstars, but we do ask they don’t forget where they grew up; how the Welsh Tourist Board will miss the Welsh flags that inevitably appeared from nowhere moments after he scored goals in Champions League finals.
In the autumn of his career, unable to dominate games as he once had, Bale became a moments player, scoring both goals in the World Cup playoff semi-final against Austria last year and the winner in the final on an emotional night against Ukraine, a player whose best years were behind him dragging us over the line for one last time.
Before his emergence, major tournaments felt like parties we weren’t invited to, but this golden generation of Wales players have reached three of the past four, including the holy grail of a World Cup.
Small nations need talismanic players. Gareth Bale gave us moments we never thought we’d have and turned dreams we felt foolish for entertaining into reality. He is the best footballer we have produced. He helped change our mentality as a country. We were lucky to have him.