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Wednesday, December 8, 2021

The real Bale – by those who know him best

ART GALLERY


Gareth Bale should win his 100th Wales cap in Saturday’s World Cup qualifier against Belarus in Cardiff
Venue: Cardiff City Stadium Date: Saturday, 13 November Kick-off: 19:45 GMT
Coverage: Live commentary on BBC Radio Wales and Radio Cymru, plus live text and score updates on the BBC Sport website and app.

Gareth Bale stands on the verge of joining a select club of Wales football internationals.

He will follow in the footsteps of centurions Jess Fishlock, Sophie Ingle, Loren Dykes and Chris Gunter should he make his 100th appearance in a Wales shirt in Saturday’s World Cup qualifier against Belarus in Cardiff.

It will be yet another remarkable milestone for a Welsh sporting great who has a truly global status.

A former pupil of Whitchurch High School in Cardiff and a youngster with Cardiff Civil Service, Bale’s potential was quickly earmarked at Southampton, prompting Spurs to pay up to £10m for him in 2007.

Such was his development there, Bale became a Real Madrid ‘Galactico’ when the Spanish giants paid out a world record £85m for his services in September 2013.

He has since built an eye-watering trophy haul including four Champions League crowns, two La Liga titles, a Copa Del Rey, three Club World Cup medals and helped Real win the European Super Cup twice.

John Toshack made him Wales’ youngest debutant in 2006 when he played in the 2-1 friendly win over Trinidad and Tobago in Graz at the age of 16 years 315 days.

Bale has since delivered so often when his country needed him.

His seven goals in qualifying propelled Wales to Euro 2016, where they reached the semi-finals in their first major tournament finals for 58 years.

His goal tally stands at 36, having surpassed Ian Rush’s previous record of 28 with a hat-trick against China in 2018.

Bale is the Wales captain, leader and talisman, who wants to lead his nation to the World Cup finals in November 2022.

Here his fellow former Whitchurch High pupil Geraint Thomas, co-centurions Gunter – his long-time team-mate – and Ingle, former Wales striker Rob Earnshaw and Toshack, who also managed Real Madrid, share their thoughts and insights with BBC Sport Wales as Bale nears his milestone.

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Rob Earnshaw – former Wales striker, 58 caps 16 goals

“The first thing I remember about Gareth’s debut was a couple of days before the game. We went out for a bite to eat as a team and the new faces had to get up and sing a song in front of the group.

“One by one they got up, nervous because they had to sing. I can’t remember what Gareth sang but it wasn’t very good! His ability and talent on the pitch was definitely way better than his voice.

“When he was introduced to the squad he was quite shy. But the moment we stepped onto the pitch and we gave him the ball, that is when I thought, ‘he has a little something here’.

“With top players it’s the way they move, the quickness of thought, how clean their touch is and their technique shines through. His touch and technique were both on point, as was his awareness.

“You could give him the ball, he started to dribble and you began to see what we have seen over the years – dribbling past players with speed and sharpness.

“After the first couple of training sessions, I thought he had a little bit but you are still cautious because he is a young kid and you ask yourself: ‘Can they take it into a game?’

“When we played Trinidad and Tobago and he came on, I instantly knew he was going to be a top player. We saw the same things as we had seen in the training sessions and he was even more confident when he took to the game stage.

“Sometimes when young players go on the pitch they are nervous, thinking about the crowd and who they are playing against. That did not enter Gareth’s mind. It was a case of: ‘Give me the ball, I am going to dribble, I am going to run. This is where I want to be.’

“Later he went down the left and pulled the ball back for me to score, which makes that his first assist for Wales.

“To reach 100 caps is unreal. When you get one cap for the national team, you step up for the national anthem and wear the shirt – that is the best feeling ever. To do it over and over again to get to 100 is something really special.

“In Gareth’s case he has had longevity and consistency. He has been a superstar, has scored goals and made a big impact lots of times. It has been a pleasure to be able to watch a world-class talent right next to me, with my own eyes and in my own team. That has been really special.

“I would love it if Gareth could play at a World Cup and I know he would love that too.”

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John Toshack – former Wales and Real Madrid manager

“I remember Brian Flynn (Wales age-group coach at the time) coming to me and saying: ‘I have another one for you. Gareth Bale is going to be a good one.’

“I went to Southampton for an evening game to watch him play and it was clear to see he was an outstanding talent at a club who knew what they were doing.

“I think the fact that I was 16 when I made my club debut helped out a bit. I knew it was not too much of an issue.

“From the first day he came with us, he stood out in training sessions, stayed behind after training to practise free-kicks and shooting. Put it this way, it would have been very difficult to miss him.

“He has certainly been one of the best players I have ever worked with and I have been fortunate enough to work with really talented players in different countries all over the world.

“At Real Madrid, there were people who criticised him early on saying he did not do enough. But he didn’t really have to do it, because doing half of what the rest of them did he could win a game.

Gareth Bale and John Toshack
‘Gareth has certainly been one of the best players I have ever worked with’

“I remember at Liverpool if anybody had a dip at us or had a go, we would respond by saying: ‘Show us your medals.’ With Gareth, I don’t think he really needs to say anything else.

“Moving to Real Madrid made him a better player. I am not saying he would not have been good if he had not gone there, but obviously it’s a pinnacle for any player.

“For him to go there and play at the Bernabeu as often as he did and be a success shows he has been a terrific advert for all of us.

“Gareth was so popular in Madrid, when he came on the pitch there was a buzz. When he got the ball you felt something would happen… but it is one thing to get there, the other is to remain at that level.

“Gareth got there through effort and determination, skill and ability and once he got there he stayed there and proved himself with vital goals.

“Maybe early on Gareth was not as happy in front of the cameras as others were. But he did his talking on the field and nobody could question his importance and what he brought to Read Madrid. He is one of the few Welshmen who have won anything at Real.

“If you look back over the years with Wales, there’s always been a stand-out player. In the 1958 World Cup team there was John Charles; we had Ian Rush and Mark Hughes. We have always had top-class individuals.

“Gareth is right up there as one of the best, if not the best. John Charles will always be the greatest player I ever saw on a football field because of his all-round ability… but Gareth has been fantastic.

“It is easy to say 100 internationals, but a lot harder to do it. I remember a group of young players coming through together including Gareth and Chris Gunter.

“I think they were roommates, they have been with each other all over Europe with Wales and the pair of them are a credit to their profession and the Wales national team.”

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Chris Gunter – Wales defender, 106 caps

“It feels like since I have been in a first-team environment, whether at Tottenham or Wales, we have been together.

“Off the pitch he is the same in terms of having a laugh. He just enjoys being around his mates. I think he has the same group of friends now.

“When he is in the football environment with people he has known for years, I think he would class us as his mates.

“On the pitch of course everything has changed for him but certainly off it, when you are around him day to day, you would not know he has had the career and success he has had.

“His game has developed and changed over the years from when he first broke in and played left-back. He will find a way wherever he is on the pitch to make an impact and affect the game.

“He does things that not many people on the pitch could do in terms of creating something completely out of nothing, making a chance, scoring a goal or going on a dribble and getting the crowd up.

“You are talking about a really exceptional talent. As a defender you would almost feel sorry for the opposition because, when he is in form… he does things you just cannot defend against.

“For many years maybe it has been taken for granted, you’re always expecting him to affect the game and more often than not for Wales that has been the case.

Gareth Bale and Chris Gunter
‘Off the pitch Gareth is the same in terms of having a laugh. He just enjoys being around his mates’

“Since he moved to Real Madrid there has always been talk around him and it has never once affected his performances for Wales. So in terms of handling that attention and the pressure, I think his career would prove it does not bother him in the slightest.

“When you are talking about the really good players, the elite players, they enjoy having that attention and thinking they are a big part of the team doing well. Results and stats would prove he enjoys having that leadership role.

“He has reached 100 caps despite there having been times for Wales when you’ve not seen him for a long period of time because of injury.

“If you asked people their favourite Gareth Bale goal or moment or performance you would probably get a lot of different answers, which proves time after time he has turned up for his country and produced.

“For fans to have somebody at that level of being a superstar, that wants to come and do everything he can to go on the pitch to perform is massive.

“When he does get there I am sure he will be proud and when he finishes playing football and looks back, getting to 100 caps will be a huge deal for him.

“He would have to be the greatest Welsh player in terms of what I have seen personally and some of the things he has done. I have been privileged to have been on the same pitch sometimes seeing that.

“Gareth has led the country, carrying the burden pretty much, probably, along with Aaron Ramsey.

“We could come back in 100 years and you probably won’t find a Welshman who has achieved what he has in the game, in terms of all the records he has broken and the trophies he has won.

“I don’t think his goal record for Wales will be broken for a long, long time and he will probably add to that by a good few by the time he finishes. So everything you talk about leads you down the road of him being the greatest.

“I just hope we have all fully appreciated what we have had on our hands, playing with him, watching him, supporting him or reporting on him.

“For somebody like that to play for Wales is the greatest thing. And the thing is, he still has a lot more to achieve for Wales. Enjoy him for however long he is playing and pulling on the Welsh shirt.”

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Sophie Ingle – Wales captain, 110 caps

“Reaching 100 caps is a massive honour and I know the country will be so proud.

“Hopefully we will get a sell-out crowd for him and get a great result for him.

“It is amazing to even get one cap for your country but to get 100 was unheard of. Now there are a few of us on that list. I know he will be really happy.

“I think I first heard of him as he got into the Welsh set-up. He is a little bit older than me but he came onto the scene at a young age for the seniors and went on to do amazing things for Wales.

“Everyone knows Gareth Bale. He has put Wales on the map.

“There are loads of highlights. He has scored some tremendous goals for Wales but it’s also about the passion he brings. He knows how important it is to put this badge on and playing every game like it is his last. I think that shows every time he plays for Wales.

“I think he can lead Wales to the World Cup. When he is in the team, you can tell the boys look up to him.

“Every single game he does whatever he can for the team and just loves playing for Wales, like we all do. Hopefully they can go on and get the qualification.”

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Geraint Thomas – Tour de France winner 2018

“I didn’t really see too much of Gareth in school, but I heard all the rumours of this football wonder kid… and followed him in his career from the start.

“It’s just great to see him do what he has done, playing for the national team. In the past there may have been a bit of a club versus national team clash.

“From what you read, footballers obviously want to go to World Cups but qualifiers, to some, seem to be a bit of a chore rather than an honour.

“But with Gareth I have always had the impression he wanted to come back to Wales to represent the nation. He has always done an unbelievable job leading the team.

“It’s great to see him achieving something so monumental. It is thoroughly deserved and hopefully he can continue to lead the team over the next few years.”

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