The world’s most expensive footballer is about to finally make his bow in a major international tournament. Gareth Bale has already been in the Welsh side for a decade, having made his debut for the senior team at 16, but the closest he has come to a summer tournament is his flirtation with the Great Britain Olympics team in 2012. Bale missed that ill-fated campaign with a back injury, but after excelling during an impressive qualifying campaign, he helped Wales do something that neither Ian Rush nor Ryan Giggs could pull off: qualify for a major international tournament, the country’s first since 1958.
Wales will make their maiden voyage to the European Championships in part because of a controversial new qualifying structure. UEFA expanded the tournament from 16 teams to 24, allowing for five countries to make their debut. Bale and his Welsh side will be joined by Albania, Iceland, Northern Ireland and Slovakia. Of those five teams, only Northern Ireland (who won Group F) would have automatically qualified under the old structure; each of the four other newcomers finished as runners-up in their respective groups and would have been forced through a two-legged playoff to qualify.
Paradoxically, a move that was seen to be watering down the competition has managed to admit one of the world’s best players entry. It’s fitting: Bale is himself, in many ways, a contradiction.
Giggs, the longtime Manchester United star, was supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime player, a left-footed attacking dynamo somehow produced by a nation with a population roughly the size of the San Diego metropolitan area. Bale and his similarly magical left foot came along before Giggs even retired. He was once the player who Tottenham couldn’t win with, failing to win in 24 consecutive Bale appearances. By the time he left for Madrid, he was a player Spurs couldn’t live without; it took Tottenham several years (and a drastically changed team) to succeed without their talisman.
Since getting to Madrid, Bale hasn’t necessarily lived up to expectations. Despite scoring better than a goal every other game in La Liga (47 in 81 appearances), he has regularly come in for criticism. He’s moved all the way from the left-back spot he occupied for Southampton and during his early days with Tottenham to the right wing, although Bale even contradicts himself there, alternately suggesting that he’s happy on the right side before saying he wants to play in the center.
It’s hardly as if he hasn’t filled up Madrid’s already-stuffed hardware cabinet. While Real haven’t won the league during Bale’s time, he’s played a key role in two Champions League victories, scoring the winner against Atletico Madrid in 2014 before heading on the opening goal and scoring a penalty against the same opponent in last month’s final. He hasn’t consistently impressed in El Clasico but Bale did deliver what has come to stand as his signature goal against Barcelona in the 2014 Copa del Rey final.
That winner is arguably the best encapsulation of Bale as a player. Set to receive a pass at the halfway line, Bale glances up at approaching Barcelona defender Marc Bartra and decides to pursue an impossible angle that few players on the planet would even consider. Bale flicks the ball past Bartra and takes an almost cartoonish route around him, a lane further extended when Bartra nearly pushes him into the bench. Bale still manages to somehow reappear around the Barcelona defender and beat him to the ball before finishing his run and slipping the ball past Jose Manuel Pinto.
It’s Bale in a nutshell. The left-back who was once a gangly, wispy head of hair became a physical specimen during his time in North London in much the same way that teammate Cristiano Ronaldo physically matured during his time at Manchester United. (In ruing missing out on Bale years later, Alex Ferguson noted the physical change by saying Bale “all of a sudden was built like a light heavyweight boxer.”) Bale is unquestionably technically gifted, but his athleticism and strength have turned him into a complete player, capable of threatening defenses with more than sheer pace or his left foot. At his best, he can make fellow professionals like Bartra look like boys.
That looms as the problem for Bale heading into the European Championship: He might make his Welsh teammates look like they don’t belong on the same pitch, too, because they’re not at his level. Bale has one genuine star besides him in Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey; otherwise, the Welsh team will consist of solid contributors at low-level Premier League teams like goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey (Crystal Palace) and center-back Ashley Williams (Swansea), as well as rotation players like Joe Allen (Liverpool) and Andy King (Leicester). Outside of Ramsey, according to Transfermarkt’s estimates, Bale is worth more than the rest of the Welsh squad combined.
With Bale as the centerpiece of an otherwise underwhelming team, how does Wales manager Chris Coleman get the most out of his superstar? And what does history suggest Wales can hope to achieve in France this summer?