Fifty-seven years, 11 months and 23 days. Not since June 19, 1958 had Wales competed in a major international tournament. Thirty years of hurt? Pah. Current-day England lament a 50-year wait since they last raised the World Cup. Try nearly six decades of perennial failure and heartbreak.
Much has changed since a teenage Pele began Wales’ long cycle of so-close-but-yet-so-far. Eight different countries have lifted the World Cup in that time; ten have won the European Championship. Three previous winners no longer exist in the same guise and Denmark and Greece have tasted continental glory since The Dragons last qualified for a tournament. Ten separate managers have tried in vain to sate the national team’s desire to perform on a grander stage. Players eminently successful to varying degrees at club level, from Ryan Giggs to Ian Rush to Neville Southall to the late and legendary Gary Speed – so fondly and rightfully remembered on such a grand occasion in Bordeaux – never had the opportunity to represent Wales beyond qualification stages.
Such a fate was never likely to befall Gareth Bale. Since becoming the most-expensive footballer in history upon joining Real Madrid, the forward seemed destined to end his proud nation’s pain. After scoring seven of Wales’ 11 goals in qualifying, the 26-year-old was finally afforded the opportunity on Saturday.
Bale’s rescue mission in Andorra, heroics in Israel and match-winning strikes against Belgium and Cyprus had provided the soundtrack for Wales’ journey to France. He was perceived as the star, the deity among the mortals of the lower reaches of England’s league system. Bale wasn’t just Wales’ very own Galactico, he was Wales. This was a one-man team – Bale plus ten others.
The build-up to the game reflected as such. The BBC presented Bale’s own personal journey from a Cardiff schoolboy to national treasure. Alan Shearer and Rio Ferdinand waxed lyrical over the forward ahead of the clash with Slovakia. “Gareth Bale is integral to how Wales play,” noted an incredibly helpful John Hartson. “If he plays well, we win,” said Dean Saunders, displaying a similar level of insight.
Rather tellingly, Saunders uttered the exact same words concerning two other players. Ashley Williams of Swansea and Aaron Ramsey have been the recurring cast members to Bale’s prolonged production, the two stalwarts providing support to the main act. But it was not Wales’ star trio who inspired victory on Saturday; the ones who so often work tirelessly behind the scenes stole the show in France.
Without the excellent Jonathan Williams, Bale’s delightful opening free-kick would have meant little. Had the impressive Ben Davies not conjured a near-miraculous goal-line clearance from Marek Hamsik’s solo effort early on, three crucial points would have been a distant possibility. Without the selfless performances of James Chester, Chris Gunter and Joe Allen, Slovakia may have emerged with at least a point. And do not underestimate the efforts of manager Chris Coleman.
Bale had the most shots (five). Allen provided the most key passes (two). Ramsey made the most tackles (five). Davies made the most interceptions (six). Gunter, Neil Taylor and Ashley Williams completed the most clearances (all three). Hal Robson-Kanu scored the most scuffed yet delightful winners. The Welsh fans supplied an incredible atmosphere. Bale provided the lasting memory with a deceptive free-kick, but his celebration defied the claims that this is a one-man team. He immediately sought to join the players and staff in an outpouring of emotion. This is a team, a collaboration, a country united, and one that will prove particularly difficult for any side to beat.
Even after the game, Gary Lineker introduced Bale for a post-match interview as ‘Wales’ superstar’. It is an accurate description in reputation only. The European champion for club is the luxury – but necessary – coat of paint on the efficient motor for country. And the Wales wagon – players, staff and fans in harmony – is well and truly on the road. Theirs is a welcome return to the world stage.