Gareth Bale ready to seize moment as Wales’s World Cup ‘dream’ kicks off

‘Each game will be incredible,’ insists the Wales captain as he gets ready to fulfil his childhood ambition after long wait

He is the boy from Whitchurch, north Cardiff, about to lead Wales on the world stage. Gareth Bale’s first World Cup memories are a little hazy – probably France 98, he says – not helped by the sustained absence of his country and a team to truly get behind. “I just remember having this pencil case with the [tournament] logo on it,” he says. But a moment that perhaps seemed as though it would elude a glittering, superstar career stacked with honours and individual accolades is finally here. Towards one end of the Corniche, Doha’s opulent waterfront, an industrial-sized image of Bale, plastered on to the facade of a sparkling skyscraper, glistens above the city.

Bale remains a big deal, a commercial entity in his own right, but the fire in him to prove he can still do the business on the pitch burns brightly. Recent evidence has already suggested as much: a fortnight ago he scored an 128th-minute leaping header to help Los Angeles FC lift the MLS Cup. For Wales to be able to lean on their captain, a player who has a handy habit of calmly rising to the occasion, is something of a priceless commodity at their first World Cup finals for 64 years. Bale and his teammates are determined to enjoy however long this latest ride lasts.

The past six years have brought Wales three major tournaments, including that unforgettable and mesmeric run to the semi-finals at Euro 2016, which Bale began with a darting free-kick against Slovakia in Bordeaux. For the younger generation of fans, Wales’ recent success may have blurred the lines. “They don’t realise how spoiled they are,” Bale says. That endearing, goofy grin follows.

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After all, it has not always been this way. “Watching Brazil and Argentina and those big teams play and now to be in that tournament is quite a cool feeling to have, especially as growing up there was not a Wales side [at a World Cup],” he says. “For the kids now to be able to have Wales, being able to watch them and have the poster up on the wall to mark out each game will be incredible.”

Bale, not for the first time, will go where others have failed. When the goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey, Bale’s best friend in the squad and, like him, a fellow Wales centurion, recently told of his pride at representing his country at a World Cup, he almost sounded a touch embarrassed at doing so knowing his idol, Neville Southall, never made it this far. The same applies to Ian Rush, whose goalscoring record Bale broke four years ago, Ryan Giggs, Gary Speed, Mark Hughes and John Toshack, who handed a 16‑year‑old Bale, then a fizzy left‑back on the books of Southampton, his senior debut in 2006.

A giant poster of Gareth Bale hangs from a skyscraper in Doha
A giant poster of Gareth Bale hangs from a skyscraper in Doha. Photograph: ANP/Alamy

The magnitude of wearing the dragon on his chest – as well as at least two armbands, only one of which is endorsed by Fifa – at a finals is not lost on Bale. “It is a very proud moment. Not only for us as players but the whole nation. Every time there has been a failure it has been ‘we want to get over the line eventually’ and the longer time went on it became an even bigger task, I guess. To be the ones to achieve it has been incredible and something we have all dreamed of since we were young – it is crazy now that the tournament is upon us and we are just going to try to enjoy it.”

Rob Page, the Wales manager, insists the team are not as reliant on Bale as they once were and that is a sentiment shared by the midfielder Jonny Williams, who made his international debut in 2013 when he replaced Bale as a substitute. Williams, who would have been lining up for a Swindon Town side that lost at home against Crewe in the fourth tier on Saturday had he not been here, is actually Wales’s leading goalscorer at club level this season, not that he has been ribbing Bale about that fact. “I couldn’t do that,” he says, typically modestly. “They’ll just say ‘it’s in League Two’ so I’ll get there first and say it myself.”

Rob Page has urged his Wales players to "show the world how good they are" as they prepare to compete on the world stage for the first time in 
64 years. 

Wales face USA in their Group B opener on Monday at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium and the captain Gareth Bale said he knows the buzz of the World Cup has gripped the nation and is determined to embrace a "massive piece of history in our country" at his first finals. 

Page said his team are ready to tackle the tournament in Qatar and scoffed at the USA captain Tyler Adams's suggestion that they are a "very physical" side. 

"We've got a way of playing that has got us success and we won't come 
away from that," Page said. "We've got identity, we work extremely hard for each other and we've got quality on the pitch that can hurt teams. We have a game-plan; we have done a lot of analysis on the first game. The players are relaxed and we are ready to go." 

Page said his team are ready to shine after adapting to the Gulf heat and the time difference, and Bale insists he is primed to perform having followed a tailor-made fitness programme despite playing only 31 minutes since October. 

"I'm right where I want to be," said the 33-year-old Los Angeles FC forward. "You can see the excitement building in our country, the flags are going up, everyone's wearing their bucket hats more and the shirts are out. We feel the buzz back at home here." 

Bale said he recognises the significance of the finals for Wales as a whole. 

"It's history in our country," he said. "Schools are going to stop to  watch ... It's one of those moments that is a massive piece of history in our country, something we've all wanted for a long time. 

"To be the team to get over the line and do that for our country is incredible. We know we have the support of a nation back home. No matter what happens, as long as we give 100% our country will love us for that". 

The Swansea City midfielder Joe Allen is set to miss the game but continues to step up his rehabilitation from a hamstring injury. "We could've pushed him, maybe, but if he breaks down then he's definitely out of the tournament," the Wales manager said. 

Page added: "There's no pressure on us, we're going to enjoy it, we're 
going to compete and I've said to the group: "We're not here to make the numbers up, we're here because we've earned the right to be here, because we're a good team," and I want to go and show the world how good we are.""

Probable Wales team (3-4-3): Hennessey; Mepham, Rodon, B Davies; C Roberts, Ramsey, Morrell, N Williams; Bale, Moore, James 

Probable USA team (4-2-3-1): Turner; Dest, Zimmerman, Long, Robinson; Adams, McKennie; Musah, Aaronson, Pulisic; Sargent 

How has Bale evolved over the years? “Into a real leader of the team and a leader of men,” Williams says. “There is no ego or big-time [nature]: ‘I am not going to do this’. He just treats everyone with respect. He makes people feel a part of something. I have played in changing rooms where that has not necessarily been the case – and that is with players that are of a lot less ability than Gareth.” Williams breaks into a smile. “Fair play, and credit to him and his parents.”

Bale had a quick, understated word with Luke Harris and Jordan James to instantly put the teenage pair at ease on their first Wales camp at their team base in Hensol in September. It was a similar story with Sorba Thomas earlier this year. “I said to Sorba: ‘Have you met Gareth before?’” Page says. “He said: ‘Well, only playing Fifa on PlayStation.’ The next thing he’s sat having dinner with him and I watched Sorba and he was looking up in awe of his hero who is standing above him and talking to him on a level. But Gareth’s got a knack of doing that, he just makes people feel at ease.”


The thing that has not changed with Bale is the gaze that follows him. “He just lights the room up just with his presence, with him just being there,” Page says. “I used to liken it to club management when you’re writing the team sheet down and you want the best players on the team sheet because you know the impact it’s going to have on the opposing manager. Gareth’s goals have taken us to the World Cup … but without what everybody else has done on that pitch, doing the hard yards, the graft, to get opportunities and give him the chance to put a free-kick in, it doesn’t happen. It’s a massive team effort.”

For Bale, this is his final guaranteed appearance on the biggest stage and almost certainly his last at a World Cup. Depending on how Wales fare in Group B, he could bow out in nine days’ time against England, of all teams. It is too early to say how this will play out but Wales, despite the strides they have taken in recent years, will still undoubtedly look to Bale for inspiration. “He has been doing it for years and is still massively capable, even at his age,” Williams says. “He is 33 now, scoring huge goals in America and having big moments for us, in the [World Cup playoff] semi-final [against Austria, in which he scored twice]. We still look to him as the main man.”


Ben Fisher in Doha

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