58 years. That’s how long Wales were forced to wait between their two major tournament appearances to date.
Those lucky enough to remember the Welsh’s stint at the 1958 World Cup would have been approaching or well into their seventies by the time Euro 2016 rolled around.
Ten minutes into their side’s opening group game against Slovakia this saint like patience was rewarded in the most euphoric way. Moments after Ben Davies had prevented a certain goal at the other end, Jonny Williams – latterly one of the protagonists of Sunderland til’ I Die – took the ball on the half turn and flicked the ball into space, drawing a late challenge from an opponent in the process.
Enter Gareth Bale, stage left.
This phenom needs no introduction. He went into the tournament in astounding form, netting 19 goals and 11 assists in just 23 La Liga games the previous season, as well as making vital contributions in the Champions League semi-finals and final.
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Simply put, Bale was one of the best players on the planet and here he was stood over a free kick 30 yards from goal. What happened next was not surprising. Outwitting goalkeeper Matus Kozacik, he opted against whipping it over the wall, instead lashing the ball back towards Kozacik’s corner.
Dripping with dip and swerve the strike caught the keeper unawares and before he knew it Bale’s man bun was mockingly bobbing up and down as he wheeled off to celebrate.
The moment was exactly what Wales needed. This was the first taste top level football for much of the squad and Bale’s free kick sparked a tidal wave of belief that the team would ride all the way to semi-finals.
While almost all of the 23 players selected by Chris Coleman played a part in this unlikely triumph, fuelled by a desire to make former coach Gary Speed proud, no one else could have provided a moment like this. It would not be the last time Bale would conjure up some magic for his country either.
In the very next game, he was at it again. This time Joe Hart was his victim, though the England goalkeeper’s self destructive streak and margarine glazed gloves also played a big part.
“It’s a very long way out this, but if he gets the power these balls do move.”
– Glenn Hoddle
After a loose first touch forced a red faced Wayne Rooney to haul Joe Allen down 35-yards from goal, Bale was presented with another opportunity to add to his free kick collection. As per usual he struck it with absurd power with the ball bouncing just in front of Hart’s grasp. Despite getting a palm to it, the ball ending up in the back of the net and once again that greasy top knot soon began bobbing with glee.
Although the goal ultimately meant little in the context of the tournament – England went on to win 2-1 – Bale would go on to ensure his side’s progression in their final group game against Russia.
This was his best performance of the tournament. Bale was in full piss taking mode for most of the 90 minutes and could have easily had a hat trick before half time. Eventually he did get his goal, finishing cutely to put the gloss on Wales’ 3-0 win.
The strike meant Bale maintained a 100% scoring record in the tournament. That ended in the round of 16 against Northern Ireland but he was no less influential, running the channels, dropping deep to pull the strings and creating the goal that booked Wales’ place in last eight of a major tournament.
Gareth McAuley was the unlucky man who diverted Bale’s cross from the corridor of uncertainty into the back of the net and some stoic defending at the death meant that was enough to set up a quarter-final tie with Belgium.
Most expected this to be a bridge too far for Chris Coleman’s side. The Red Devils were one of the tournament favourites after all. Yet, spurred on by the performances of their leading man, Wales’ supporting cast played out of their skins.
What sticks out in popular memory is Hal Robson-Kanu channelling Johan Cruyff, but he was far from the only star.
Ashley Williams put in a captain’s performance and scored a captain’s goal, Joe Allen and Joe Ledley covered every blade of grass twice over, while wing-backs Neil Taylor and Chris Gunter barely put a foot wrong. The latter even got an assist, whipping in a delicious cross for substitute Sam Vokes to nod home.
Selflessly leading the line, as he had throughout the tournament, was Bale.
The next hurdle, a semi-final against Portugal would prove too much for Coleman’s brave charges with injuries costing them dearly. When they returned home after the third place playoff, they were welcomed as heroes. Front and centre of the party bus was Bale and deservedly so.
In the years that have followed Euro 2016, he has experienced plenty more success in the form of two more Champions League titles and a La Liga winners medal. However, these accomplishments were tainted by off-field complications and his often bizarre feud with the Spanish press.
This period has popularised an image of Bale as a pampered, uncaring mercenary. If you are ever tempted to take this view, just go back and watch his inspirational but unselfish performances at Euro 2016.
For Bale it has always been Wales. Golf. Madrid. In that order.