“The dragon on my shirt; that’s all I need,” Gareth Bale said, looking down at the Wales crest on his red polo shirt, swaying on a swivel chair in Dinard with a little abandon before their quarter-final victory over Belgium at Euro 2016. That statement feels as though it will soon be put to the test.
As the sun set in Doha on Monday, morphing into the marshmallow skies, Bale was again holding court, repeatedly checking his watch as the questions flowed. He knew it was only a matter of time before he was asked whether Wales’s game against England on Tuesday could be his last for his country? “Nope,” Bale snapped back, arms folded. Well, that’s that – for now at least.
Not all questions were so predictable. Among the others was: how was the rack of Welsh lamb? On Sunday the celebrity chef Bryn Williams brought Welsh cakes and cooked dinner, fit with mint sauce and caper dressing, at the team hotel in West Bay. “Hopefully it gives us a better performance – we would love nothing more,” Bale said with a spoonful of perspective.
“We are trying to keep our spirits high. We have to remember we are at a World Cup, for the first time in a long time. We would rather be at a World Cup maybe not doing amazingly well than sat at home on the sofa not doing anything. We are happy to be here and we are going to give everything we can to try to qualify.”
Six years ago Bale, whose career is winding down in the US, could do no wrong, a superpower grazing and grinning his way through Wales’s extraordinary ride to the semi-finals. He infamously served up a home run for anyone with even a millilitre of Welsh blood, insisting Wales had more passion than England.
“I feel we are the most passionate country in the world and that will never change in my mind,” Bale maintained the day before Wales flew to Qatar. But suddenly he – together with Aaron Ramsey – finds himself on the sharp end of the flak thrown Wales’s way following a miserable start to their first World Cup in 64 years.
Perhaps the difficulty is that we have come to expect so much more. It has led Bale into a strange and somewhat awkward spot where the player who is probably Wales’s finest of all time feels it necessary to justify his workrate amid the clamour, in places, for him to be dropped so he can hand the baton on to a younger model.
“I was flying into tackles in the 95th minute the other day,” he said. “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes I have a good game, sometimes I don’t. It’s football; it’s difficult to always play well. The one thing I always do is give 100%.”
Rob Page, the Wales manager, gave credence to the possibility of Bale and Ramsey being among the substitutes at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium. “It’s a big ask for anybody in this environment to go four days later from one competitive game to another,” Page said.
“They are talented footballers. OK, we’re all getting a bit of criticism right now, and rightly so because results ain’t going our way and [because of] our performances. That’s the industry. We’re big enough to take it – it’s not a problem. We’ll put our big-boy pants on and get on with it. We’ll have a team that’s ready for England.”
Bale knows England are not infallible. “Everyone has weaknesses,” the Wales captain said. “We’ve done our homework. We’ve had meetings and I’m sure they’ve done the same with us. England are a very good team. They are one of the favourites to win the tournament. We are under no illusions that it will be hard. There’s been a few shocks in the tournament already and there’s no reason why we can’t do the same.”
In the summer Bale insisted there were a few more years left in the legs and that he wants to help Wales reach another European Championship, for which qualifying begins in March. He signed a 12-month contract with Los Angeles FC that runs until June with the scope to extend until 2024. But for a while it has been impossible to escape the sense that Bale is making it up as he goes along, playing minutes and scoring wonder-goals on his terms, orbiting his own star.
Since the qualifying for this competition began 18 months ago, Wales have unashamedly been his primary focus. So would exiting the World Cup give Bale a decision to make? “I will play for Wales until the day I stop playing football,” the 33-year-old said last year. “I love playing for Wales.”
Wales will fly home to Cardiff unless they can beat England for the first time since 1984, and even then that might not be enough. Technically, qualifying for the last 16 is in their own hands but unless they spank England by a four-goal margin, to progress they need a win and Iran and the USA to play out a draw.
“We don’t get divided by a bad team performance or result,” Bale said, alluding to Wales’s Together Stronger slogan that has stuck since Euro 2016. “We stick together because we are stronger as a group.” Regardless of how Tuesday unfolds, Bale deserves a dignified exit.