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.
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.
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.”
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.”