Will this be Gareth Bale's last tournament with Wales?
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With his top-knot pulled tight and his shorts rolled high in the Azerbaijani sun, Gareth Bale has been hard to miss this week. He is a figure who naturally draws the eye and, even if you could not pick him out of the crowd in Wales’ open training sessions, you can usually hear his voice. More often than not, Bale is the one with his head thrown back, whooping with high-pitched laughter towards the Baku skies.
This is Bale’s default state with Wales. Happy, relaxed, joking with his team-mates. He has long been one of the main pranksters in the squad, always searching for the next gag, and he has never made any attempt to hide the joy he feels when representing his country.
There are times, though, when it all gets a little more serious for Bale and for Wales. Those wide smiles will be replaced by clenched jaws on Saturday, when their European Championship begins with a testing match against Switzerland. For most of Rob Page’s players, a second consecutive Euros brings opportunity. For Bale, more than anyone else, it also brings pressure.
Aaron Ramsey, Daniel James, Harry Wilson, David Brooks. Wales have plenty of attacking players at their disposal this summer, but none of them come close to Bale in terms of profile, achievement and status. He is the leader of this team, the footballing alpha male, and it is his face that the cameras will search for after every meaningful action on Saturday.
Even in Baku, on the banks of the Caspian Sea, it is Bale who captures the imagination. In a pizza restaurant on Thursday night, a local woman responded to the sight of a Wales shirt with four words of English. “Good luck Gareth Bale.” To many around the world, Bale is Wales and Wales is Bale.
The watching media point their cameras towards Gareth Bale
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None of this is fair, of course. On Bale or on his team-mates, many of whom are perfectly capable of causing problems for Switzerland without the help of their captain. It might not have been clocked by the Azerbaijani locals but Bale has actually not scored for Wales in his last 11 matches. James, Wilson, Brooks and Kieffer Moore have all stepped up instead.
Naturally, Bale’s influence goes far beyond goal tallies. Often his sheer presence on the pitch is enough to make an impact, as opposition defences attempt to double up on him wherever he goes. This leaves space for others, and Bale is more than happy to play the role of facilitator rather than finisher.
It will be a source of considerable angst among all who follow Welsh football that Bale turns 32 next month. The clock really is ticking now, to such an extent that he has recently fielded questions about whether he might even retire this year. It is a reality – an unwelcome one for Wales – that this could be his last chance to lead his country at an international tournament.
Crucially, he is fit. Bale arrived in Baku after a strong finish to the season with Tottenham Hotspur, where the departure of Jose Mourinho helped him to rediscover his form. He finished the league campaign with a commendable 11 goals, and had comfortably the best goals-per-game ratio of any player in the division.
Gareth Bale enjoyed a strong finish to the season with Tottenham
With Wales he is aware of his position of power. How could he not be? He expresses his opinion to Page, and is vocal in training, but during matches he tends to stay quiet. “He kind of leaves us alone on the pitch,” said James. “If anything is said, it will be at half-time.”
James is perhaps the biggest beneficiary of Bale’s on-pitch aura. The Manchester United winger runs with the sort of pace that Bale used to have, darting into the space that Bale creates.
Those lung-busting days are gone for Bale now, who has changed as a player since his early years at Real Madrid, and indeed since Wales’ run to the semi-final of Euro 2016. There is still power in the tank, though, as can be seen in the rippling leg muscles he has displayed so regularly in the last few days, hiking up his shorts during training drills. At Tottenham last season he averaged almost three completed dribbles a game, his highest figure since his Premier League breakthrough in 2008.
There is no doubt that Switzerland will have ideas of how to stop Bale and he will need to adapt his game to the circumstances, picking the right moments to attack. “Someone like him spends half his career being man-marked,” said Wales defender Ben Davies. “I have seen him change but the reality is that he still has more quality than nearly everybody I have played football with.
“For someone like him, it is about every time he gets those moments, being as good and as clinical as he can be. I think he shows that. You give him a moment and there are not many players, in two or three seconds on the ball, who can create or score like he does.”
Bale is not the only threat in the Wales squad, and they are far from a one-man team. But he remains a unique talent, a global draw and the best hope for a Wales side that will soon have to contemplate a post-Bale reality. It is a frightening thought. For now, they can only support him, supply him and pray he thrives on the expectations of his nation.