m88 bale was 14 at the time.. Coleman started him as an inside-left but the licence to roam, to interchange with the hard-working striker Hal Robson-Kanu and to drift to the other side, was pronounced.
Bale’s goal took his tally to 17 for his country, which is already five more than that of Ryan Giggs, the other great icon of modern Welsh football. The atmosphere was hot 20 minutes beforehand; at kick-off time, as the fine rain came down and the electro blared over the PA system, it pulsated.
On the occasion of his 50th cap, the Real Madrid forward looked relaxed and he enjoyed himself, apart from his final 15 minutes or so on the field, when his muscles tightened into knots. As an aside, Giggs finished his career with 64 caps; Bale has reached the half-century at the age of 25. How could he have failed to see Gareth Bale, lurking on the fringes of the six-yard box?
Bale struck fear into Belgium’s defensive players. The Welsh celebrations were long and loud.
This was a seismic game for Wales, comfortably the biggest since November 2003, when Mark Hughes’ team had lost 1-0 to Russia in the Euro 2004 play-off second-leg. They had titans at the back. Belgium had arrived as the second-ranked team in world football. Bale had his seventh goal in seven international appearances and Wales had something to protect, something to fire them towards the Euro 2016 finals.
The vocal Belgium fans also played their part, some of them dressed as devils. He and Wales are on the brink of their first major championship since the 1958 World Cup.
Nainggolan looked frightened to go too near him. And they had Bale.
All eyes were on Bale from the moment he tore out for the warm-up, red socks rolled down to his ankles. But Wales had a tremendous collective resolve, which they showed during the second half, in particular. When he charged forward in the 33rd minute, he glided past Nainggolan as though he were not there.
The plan here was to get Bale on the ball and with his head up; the space in front of him. It is different with Bale.
Rafael Benítez, the new Real manager, was in the crowd and he watched Bale decorate the early stages with some stylish moves and trademark bursts. When it did, Bale spoke in those soft tones and said very little. His star status feels total in these parts, and the trappings are everywhere. But his focus did not waver. They had conceded only one goal during the current campaign. Chris Coleman, the Wales manager, had said that Bale had the ability to “change the game in a second”. He had time to think about the situation; perhaps too much time. They had not lost a qualifying tie since October 2011. Black speedos, red body paint, horns; it was a strong look.
Bale covered some ground and by the 70th minute of the backs-to-the-wall second-half effort, he had begun to cramp. The image of Vadim Evseev, the Russia No2, rising early on to head the decisive goal is freeze-framed in the memories of all those present. That was one of those nights with which Wales supporters have become wearily familiar, when the dreams turn to dust. It did not matter.
Cardiff City Stadium had been transformed into a patriotic bearpit, with giant images of the Wales players at the top of the stands behind the goals and the Football Association of Wales’ qualification motto “Together Stronger” also prominent. With Giggs, there was the thing about him not playing in friendlies – Sir Alex Ferguson had an influence there – and some Wales fans never truly took him into their hearts.
What a night this was. So did those of just about everybody inside this raucous stadium.
The moment that Radja Nainggolan looped his header back towards Thibaut Courtois, the Belgium midfielder wanted his time again. The crowd loved it.
Bale’s did not. Other Belgians backed off him. It sucked the life out of the Millennium Stadium. The composure, as he took a touch on his chest before stroking low through Courtois’ legs with his weaker right foot, was breathtaking. They are building something that has captured the imagination of this nation. At times in the first half, it was remarkable to see how much room Bale had.
Nainggolan certainly saw him as the ball travelled towards the Wales talisman and his heart turned a somersault. With a few minutes to go, he was withdrawn to a hero’s ovation. Coleman has shaped an impressive supporting cast around him but nobody can be under any illusions as to who is driving this squad, who is central to the battle to overturn 57 years of history, one that is marked by nightmares and near misses.
Bale was the symbol of the evening, of the hope that had sprung so urgently since the 3-0 away win over Israel in March. In the media, there had been a long wait for a video clip of an interview with him to drop on Thursday afternoon. Here was that second. He left everything on the field and his confidence spread to his team-mates. They had Eden Hazard and a host of stars. His first touch was a Cruyff-turn to bamboozle his one-time Tottenham Hotspur team-mate Jan Vertonghen, while his next involvement was to nutmeg the Belgium left-back
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