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Thursday, November 10, 2022

Bale continues to ‘lead by example’ in Wales’ push for 2022 World Cup | Wales

Even over lunch in Hensol on Friday Robert Page could not resist indulging in a replay or two of Gareth Bale’s irresistible free-kick, even if every viewing descended into the pair giggling at the sheer magnificence of it. “I just burst out laughing,” the interim Wales manager says. “He was laughing about it as well. It is the best free-kick I’ve ever seen in my life … if he stood in the corner with the ball in his hand, you couldn’t place it any closer into the corner. To do that when the pressure’s on, in a big game, it speaks volumes about him, not only as a player but as a person and as a character.”

His character has been lampooned in Spain, the newspaper Marca branding the Wales captain a “parasite” alongside a graphic depicting Bale as an insect sucking blood from the Real Madrid badge on the eve of Thursday’s win over Austria. It perhaps explains why Bale celebrated his two extraordinary goals in Cardiff by repeatedly beating the dragon crest on his shirt. On Friday he took aim in a lengthy social media post at “parasite” journalists, pointing out the damage negative articles can cause and calling for change in the way “we publicly talk about and criticise people” for not meeting “often unrealistic expectations”.

Bale’s timely masterclass on the pitch makes his exile in Spain all the more mystifying and his agent, Jonathan Barnett, has suggested the 32-year-old’s future will be dictated by whether Wales reach Qatar in November.

Page may have been pushing it when saying Bale would walk on broken glass down the M4 to play for Wales but it is impossible to question the forward’s contribution. “He’s the first one on camp, every camp,” Page says. “He leads by example. He is a massive part of the culture that Gary [Speed] created and Chris Coleman inherited and built on.

“He is the model professional, and I mean to the nth degree. He looks after what he eats, his sleep, his rest, recovery, that detail. It is no coincidence that he can still deliver performances like that at international level against a top, top team. Players like him can just turn it on when they want and adrenaline would have helped him.”

He was not the only one. Aaron Ramsey went the distance on his sixth successive Wales start. Neco Williams, who did not make a league start this season until joining Fulham in February, furrowed with vigour down the left and Joe Rodon put in a gutsy display. He has not been given a Tottenham start since playing Morecambe in January. “How, after performances like that, I don’t know,” Page says.

Joe Rodon had not played since January but was key to Wales’ win against Austria.
Joe Rodon had not played since January but was key to Wales’ win against Austria. Photograph: Charlotte Wilson/Offside/Getty Images

A statistic lost amid the celebrations – strobe lights returned at full time to prolong the party – is that Wales have not been beaten in Cardiff in 17 games since November 2018. It underlines how tantalisingly close they are to a first World Cup since 1958.

“It’s lovely to be on Welsh turf,” Connor Roberts said, looking down the camera, before Thursday’s game and Scotland or Ukraine, who will head there in the rearranged playoff final, will do well to cope with another supercharged atmosphere. Austria’s fidgeting players did not know where to look as supporters linked arms for a rousing rendition of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau.

“It is phenomenal and the supporters have to take a massive amount of credit for that,” Page says of the unbeaten home run. “It was a hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck moment again when they were singing the anthem. All right, the luck of the draw has said we’ve got another home draw for the final, which is great, but we won’t just take our foot off the gas now and expect the stat to help us out.”

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Some fans were broken by the time Dafydd Iwan performed Yma o Hyd, a patriotic song about survival. A teardrop slowly rolled down Iwan’s cheeks as he pointed towards those in the Canton Stand singing every word back at him. One supporter consoled a blubbering friend but the most apt lasting image is the freeze-frame of Roberts celebrating behind Bale as the four Austria players in the wall, including a wincing Xaver Schlager, hands clasped behind his back, swivel in astonishment, the ball about to nestle in the top corner.

That Bale goal felt ridiculous and yet at the same time almost natural. His Wales teammates have come to expect the sublime. It is why they regard free-kicks as penalties. “Cheers Gaz,” Roberts said in a tweet. “One more game.”

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