‘That was the shift to superhero’: Gareth Bale as he reaches 100 Wales caps

Teammates recall the most memorable of the forward’s 99 appearances before landmark match at home to Belarus

Trinidad & Tobago 1-2 Wales, May 2006 (friendly). Cap: one

My first impressions were of a young, very skinny kid who was a bit shy. But you could see that smooth left foot, that speed, that composure and little flash of brilliance. As soon as he had his first touch, coming from a left-back position, he looked up and dribbled and it was almost like: ‘This is where I’m supposed to be.’ In the game he had zero fear. He ended up pulling the ball back for me for his first assist. Robert Earnshaw

Wales 1-5 Slovakia, Oct 2006 (Euro 2008 qualifying). Cap: three

The month before we had played Brazil – Ronaldinho, Kaká, Marcelo and everybody – at White Hart Lane. Ryan Giggs gets a free-kick in the first half in a shooting position and is stood over the ball and Gareth goes over. He wanted it but he also knew: ‘I can’t take this free-kick ahead of Ryan Giggs!’ He conceded Giggs was going to take it and Giggs had a little chuckle just before he took it. Ryan revealed at half-time that Gareth said: ‘Yeah, just don’t hit it too hard.’ We all burst out laughing because he was such a young kid, but that’s him. By now he wasn’t naive any more. He was starting to get a reputation for being really, really good at free-kicks. Every free-kick he was always saying: ‘Can I have it?’ This was his first Wales goal – that it was from a free-kick was fitting. RE

Gareth Bale scoring free-kicks against Slovakia in October 2006 and June 2016.
Gareth Bale scoring free-kicks against Slovakia in October 2006 and June 2016. Composite: Getty: Shutterstock

Wales 2-1 Scotland, Oct 2012 (World Cup 2014 qualifying). Cap: 37

That game, definitely, was the shift to the superhero. He did his thing that he did in the [Copa del Rey] final [against Barcelona], where he ran off the pitch and back on, dribbling and collecting the ball on the other side, and in the end they were just trying to wrestle him down. But he was too strong, too fast, could jump higher than everyone else and could do things that no one else could do. We’d known Gaz for years and he was a good player but just another one of us – but at that moment he started to turn into something completely different. It was like seeing someone grow into their superpowers. Ashley Williams

Andorra 1-2 Wales, Sept 2014 (Euro 2016 qualifying). Cap: 45

It was the first game of the campaign and we thought it was a great fixture. But we were on that artificial pitch, which is terrible, and conceded a penalty. Gaz equalised before half-time but we struggled and then we got the free-kick with 10 minutes to go. Gaz hit the wall but got to retake it and I knew he would score. The celebrations were amazing; the fans spilled on to the pitch. There was great relief. It was the first time we felt that we could qualify, really and truthfully. AW

Gareth Bale celebrates after scoring in Andorra in 2014.
Gareth Bale celebrates after scoring in Andorra in 2014. Photograph: Pascal Pavani/AFP/Getty Images

Israel 0-3 Wales, Mar 2015 (Euro 2016 qualifying). Cap: 49

Aaron Ramsey scored a looping header and Bale made it 2-0 with a free-kick from the right. He whipped it and one of the Israel players [Bibars Natcho] was scrambling to block it, trying, as you would do on Fifa, to get on the line. It was literally like a video game. There were so many big moments building up to the Euros where Gaz won games singlehandedly. He has changed Wales. The respect we have gained as a nation is thoroughly down to him being an unbelievable talent. Jonny Williams

Wales 1-0 Belgium, June 2015 (Euro 2016 qualifying). Cap: 50

That one is the one for me, a huge moment in qualifying for the Euros. Belgium arrived with their superstars and if there was a man to pop up with a goal for the occasion … the stadium erupted. It was a great finish, through [Thibaut] Courtois’s legs from a tight angle. That was the game where we thought we were going to achieve something special. That team we had for those two or three years, the back of [Gary] Speed’s [tenure] and through to Coleman, was an unbelievable group. I had to up my game because I knew I was playing with Bale and Ramsey. They made you believe in yourself as well. JW

Gareth Bale beats Thibaut Courtois to secure victory for Wales against Belgium.
Gareth Bale beats Thibaut Courtois to secure victory for Wales against Belgium. Photograph: David Davies/PA Images

Bosnia-Herzegovina 2-0 Wales, Oct 2015 (Euro 2016 qualifying). Cap: 53

I remember walking off and the manager [Coleman] was storming down the tunnel raging. It was not until one of the staff went over and said, ‘We’ve actually qualified’ that he did a U-turn and we went and celebrated with the fans. Gareth leads by example. We would finish training and in a squad of 23 he would have 22 lads behind him watching him take free-kicks for 10 or 15 minutes. I remember training alongside him in France and sometimes it was like he was training with schoolkids and we were taking part in his session. Sam Vokes

Gareth Bale leads Wales in celebrating their qualification for Euro 2016 in Bosnia.
Gareth Bale leads Wales in celebrating their qualification for Euro 2016 in Bosnia. Photograph: Dado Ruvić/Reuters

Wales 2-1 Slovakia, June 2016 (Euro 2016). Cap: 56

Any time we had a free-kick in the opposition half it was near enough a penalty; we felt it was like a 75% chance we were going to score. We devised a plan that James Chester and myself would be on the end of the wall to block the keeper a bit. Gaz would aim at us, we would move and it worked perfectly here, as it did so many times. Once you’ve got that first goal in the tournament, that first win, that’s off your back. What a strike it was. AW

China 0-6 Wales, Mar 2018 (China Cup). Cap: 69

He broke Ian Rush’s [goalscoring] record. We were used to being around him but they are mad for it in China so there were roadblocks everywhere in Nanning and the hotel reception was rammed at all times. We couldn’t go anywhere with him without it being completely choc-a-bloc. It was a fun trip actually. There was nothing to do so we’d sit and play Uno for hours. Gaz was involved. I think I was the champ, Sam Vokes second and Chris Gunter bottom. AW

Wales 2-0 Hungary, Nov 2019 (Euro 2020 qualifying). Cap: 83

Gareth does not necessarily need to score to contribute. His passing is unbelievable and this game was a case of having nine players supporting two world-class players in Bale and Ramsey. When you need it most, they turn up and produce the goods. That night they were on a different planet. Gareth has an aura because of what he has achieved but he is very down to earth, humble and is almost like a little kid in terms of his banter – he is always messing about. One of my first camps, I went out of the hotel door and him and Wayne Hennessey are putting golf balls in the corridor. It reminds you that every footballer is human, whether you’re a millionaire superstar or further down the ladder. Gareth genuinely enjoys coming to play for Wales. He just enjoys his life without getting too hung up on the serious aspect of it. Joe Morrell

Gareth Bale in action during the home win over Hungary in Euro 2020 qualifying.
Gareth Bale in action during the home win over Hungary in Euro 2020 qualifying. Photograph: Kieran McManus/BPI/Shutterstock

Belarus 2-3 Wales, Sep 2021 (World Cup 2022 qualifying). Cap: 98

For someone who has achieved so much, you could still see what it meant to him to score a hat-trick for his country and, more importantly for him, to get the three points. If he does not score or assist, he is just as happy if the team win. Some players aren’t like that and that’s what makes him extra special. He goes round and gets his ball signed by the whole team, whether that person has played for Wales before or not – he makes sure everyone is involved. JW


Interviews by Ben Fisher

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