If Wales are knocked out by Belgium on Friday night, they will go home as heroes, but Gareth Bale has no intention of doing that. This is the biggest game in Welsh football since 1958, and Bale has cleared his schedule until the final at the Stade de France on Sunday 10 July.
Belgium might be favourites for the quarter-final in Lille, but Bale has total confidence in his team. After one win and one draw against Belgium in qualification, Bale believes that Wales are the Belgians’ “bogey team”, and that they know how to beat Marc Wilmots’ talented but patchy side.
At the start of the campaign to qualify for Euro 2016, in November 2014, Wales went to Brussels and earned a hard-fought 0-0 draw, with Bale leading the line by himself. When the sides met again at the Cardiff City Stadium in June 2015, Bale scored the only goal in a 1-0 win, one of the crucial turning points in Chris Coleman’s four and a half year tenure as Wales manager. That improvement has taken them all the way to a European Championship quarter-final, which is why Bale hopes his team have a psychological edge over their more accomplished opponents.
“We are like their bogey team aren’t we?” Bale said at the Welsh camp in Brittany. “We understand we’ve had good results against them, but they are a top team. Hopefully that edge gets into their heads, you never know. It’s about how well the two teams perform on the night.”
But having beaten Belgium on that emotional night in Cardiff just over a year ago, Bale is confident that Wales have Belgium’s number. “We will definitely draw on those experiences, it gives us more knowledge on them,” Bale said. “We know how to play against them and how they play. We know it will be a different game from the qualifiers and it is a more pressurised situation, but we understand what they are about and how they work. We will hone our game-plan to try and stop them, but help our attack.”
Bale credits that game as being the moment when Wales realised that they could beat big opposition, forging a confidence that has taken them to the last eight of this tournament. Few expected Wales to get this far. Chris Gunter’s brother Marc is getting married in Mexico next Thursday, meaning that if Wales beat Belgium neither Chris nor his parents will be able to attend. Neil Taylor has made a sacrifice of his own, missing Thursday evening’s Beyoncé concert at the Millennium Stadium with his wife. Bale, though, made sure that he had nothing in his diary until after the final one week from Sunday. He fully intends to be there. “I planned everything for after the final,” he joked. “I was the clever one in the group.”
If Wales do lose in Lille then they will still receive a grand public reception when they return home early next week. They will have matched the performance of the 1958 team who reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup, a huge achievement given that this is their first major tournament since then.
But Bale does not want to get into the mindset that this is enough and that anything else is a bonus. As he said very clearly last week, competitions are there to be won. “We know we have done well and the country is proud of us even if we do get knocked out,” Bale said. “But we want to keep going, we want to keep riding this wave. We want to go as far as we can and try to win the tournament.”
Wales’ success so far has been an enormous credit to Coleman, who has turned a good cohort of players into a unit that has the feel of a club side, and is all the better for it. There is real unity between these players, whether they play for Real Madrid or Reading. Wales have been in France for 25 days now but Bale said they were still enjoying themselves.
Bale believes that Coleman’s personal touch, knowing when to choose between carrot and stick, has been crucial to getting the right attitude and atmosphere on and off the pitch. “He is very important for us, he has that bit of banter with us, but you know when it comes to the hard work he will give you a b******ing if he has to,” Bale said. “He has a joke and a laugh, but when it comes down to it you know how serious he is and you do not want to get on the wrong side of him. There have been half-times when he has had to stick the boot in, but he hits the nail on the head.”
Bale and the rest of the Welsh team are loving being in the small coastal town of Dinard in Brittany, overlooking the English Channel, so much so that Bale described it as “like being on holiday with your mates”. It was that sort of matey fun that saw the Wales players gleefully celebrating when England were knocked out of by Iceland on Monday night.
“It’s a laugh and a joke, it doesn’t really matter,” Bale said. “We’re all together jumping around. We’ve jumped around more than just for that game. We’re just having a laugh and joke. We’re a jokey, bantery team.” Wales, of course, were delighted to be the last Home Nations team left in the competition, but now they want to go further. As Bale put it, “it’s our time to shine.”
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