Bale the star as Wales returns to World Cup after 64 years
A hush descended over the players and coaching staff of the Welsh national team as renowned actor Michael Sheen delivered a stirring pre- World Cup speech at the squad’s training base.
Mixing both the Welsh and English languages, Sheen spoke of hope and defiance. Of a “red storm coming to the gates of Qatar.” He referenced the team’s late coach, Gary Speed, and encouraged the new man in charge, Rob Page, to “turn the pages of the history books.”
It was rousing, goosebump-inducing stuff.
In truth, Wales shouldn’t be short of motivation.
For the first time since 1958, the Welsh will be playing on soccer’s biggest stage — the culmination of a decade of gradual improvement that has coincided with the presence of one of the world’s best players, Gareth Bale.
Bale, once soccer’s most expensive player when he joined Real Madrid for 100 million euros (then $132 million) in 2013, has helped drag Wales into the last two European Championships — the team reached the semifinals of Euro 2016 — and now into its first World Cup in 64 years.
It’s a tournament that Wales greats like Ryan Giggs, Ian Rush, Mark Hughes and Neville Southall never reached. One that looked increasingly beyond even Bale, whose club career is winding down after leaving Madrid to move to MLS team Los Angeles FC in June.
Regularly hit by injuries, the 33-year-old forward continues to save his best performances for his national team. This may yet be his final flourish at international level — who knows, maybe even at any level — and what a stage to go out.
Especially with Wales drawn in the same group as neighbor and rival England, as well as the United States and Iran.
Giggs had been hoping to coach Wales at the World Cup but the Manchester United great stood down in June while he was facing a trial on charges of domestic violence.
Giggs said he didn’t want to jeopardize preparations for Qatar, having been on leave since November.
The jury in Giggs’ trial was discharged in late August after failing to reach a verdict, and the former player is facing a retrial in July.
Because of the case, Giggs didn’t coach Wales at last year’s Euro 2020, either.
MEMORIES OF 1958
Wales’ only appearance at a World Cup came in 1958, when the team reached the quarterfinals before losing to Brazil 1-0.
The scorer that day? Pele.
Wales’ big regret was that John Charles was unable to play against Brazil after being subjected to some rough tackling by Hungary in the 2-1 win for the Welsh in a playoff match to get into the quarterfinals.
Charles, nicknamed the “Gentle Giant,” was one of the best center forwards in the world at the time and played his club soccer at Juventus. It remains one of the many “What If?” moments in Welsh soccer over the years.
To ensure he is as fit and fresh as possible for Qatar, Bale has been following a personalized fitness program in the United States, gradually loading his training.
The majority of his appearances for LAFC have come as a second-half substitute and Bale still hasn’t completed 90 minutes for his new team, which went into the MLS playoffs as the Western Conference’s leading team.
Bale has said he feels fitter and sharper than he has for a long time. He is also enjoying his soccer, which wasn’t the case in his final years in Madrid — except during international breaks when he could play for Wales.
And inevitably, it was Bale who guided Wales through the European playoffs and into the World Cup, scoring both goals — one a sensational free kick into the top corner — in the win over Austria in the semifinals and then a deflected free kick to clinch a 1-0 victory over Ukraine in the final.
Wales isn’t all about Bale.
Page will hope experienced midfielder Aaron Ramsey — another injury-prone player — can stay healthy enough to play all the games in the group stage, while 21-year-old Brennan Johnson is a talented forward in his first season in the Premier League with Nottingham Forest.
Daniel James will be one of the quickest players in the tournament, but the Fulham winger often lacks the end product to make the most of space he can create for himself.
Otherwise, Page has a squad of players mostly spread around England’s lower leagues.
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Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80