Gareth Bale had already spoken about what it really means to be Welsh, right down to the way that his country sings the national anthem, when the conversation turned to facing England and, with no encouragement needed, the world’s most expensive footballer saw a chance to light the touchpaper.
“It is like any derby – you never want to lose to the enemy,” Bale says. “I think we’ve got a lot more passion and pride about us than them. We’ll definitely show that on the day.”
There was a twinkle in his eye and a slight grin on his face but Bale, make no mistake, was deadly serious. With Wales taking on Slovakia in Bordeaux on Saturday in the opening match in Group B, Bale could easily have trotted out the take-one-game-at-a-time cliche and sidestepped all talk of England in the same way that he skirts around opponents. Instead, the Real Madrid forward gave the impression that he rather enjoyed the opportunity to rattle England’s cage before Thursday’s game in Lens.
Even a benign question about how he reacted to the draw was followed by a little dig about the arrogance he sees in the English. “I had a chuckle, not going to lie,” Bale says, smiling. “I knew it was going to come. It is an amazing game to be involved in. For me it is probably the standout game in the tournament in the group stage. It is one we are looking forward to. There is no pressure on us. They big themselves up before they’ve done anything, so we’re going to go there and we believe we can beat them. They believe they can beat us. I’m sure it will be a very good game; hopefully we can come out on top.”
Bale could, in theory, have been lining up for Roy Hodgson’s side. Although born in Cardiff to Welsh parents, he has an English grandmother, which encouraged Jonathan Barnett, his agent, to broach the subject of international football with Bale and his family before he had won his first cap. Barnett revealed last year how he was given short shrift as soon as he mentioned England and he went on to say that Bale had missed out on millions in sponsorship deals as a result.
With Wales having qualified for their first major tournament since 1958, Bale was asked whether there was a sense of vindication that he had made the right decision to knock England back. “No,” Bale says, laughing and looking almost incredulous. “I wouldn’t care if I never qualified, I would never play for England. It doesn’t vindicate anything.”
Bale, in short, is as Welsh as they come and anyone wondering what it means to him to play for his country need look no further than his reaction at the final whistle after they beat Cyprus 2-1 at home in October 2014. It was only the third game of the Euro 2016 qualification campaign but Bale, screaming into the heavens with his arms aloft at the final whistle, looked like a man who had won the tournament, not merely picked up three points on the road to getting there.
“If you’re Welsh, look at the rugby, we feel more pride and passion than anyone else,” Bale says. “It’s one of those things. It’s difficult to explain but we feel that pride and passion. Look at the national anthem, everyone sings, the whole stadium. I remember the Belgium game [12 months ago], we were all tired [late on] and the whole stadium just started singing it. I don’t think any other nation would do that. Being Welsh just brings it out of you.”
It was put to Bale that it could have something to do with Wales, with its population of about three million, being a relatively small country, so the emotion and unity are born of the need to shout to be heard and create a bit of a siege mentality. “Maybe. I don’t know what it is. I don’t feel we have to do anything differently,” he says. “It’s just what we are like. I remember when I was young being in a pub with my parents watching rugby or football, everyone was together, singing. It’s the way we are brought up.”
It is an interesting debate and one that Bale was clearly enjoying as he sat around a table with a small group of journalists at Wales’s training camp in Dinard, Brittany, on the eve of the trip to Bordeaux. He gave the impression that he is relaxed, full of confidence and totally comfortable in his own skin. For the second time in three seasons he has won the Champions League and, at the age of 26, Bale should be approaching the peak of his powers.
This week L’Équipe described Bale as indispensable, which is pretty much spot on. Without Bale, Welsh hope would evaporate. With Bale, anything seems possible, to the point that it feels as though he has the weight of a nation on his shoulders, in much the same way as Zlatan Ibrahimovic with Sweden and Cristiano Ronaldo with Portugal. “I don’t see it like that – I just go out there and play football,” he says. “I really don’t look at it as pressure. It is something to enjoy. It’s going out with your friends for a kickabout and you just have to try and win.”
Bale has earlier argued that his nation is not a one-man team, yet the qualifying statistics are impossible to ignore (he scored seven and made the assist for two more of their 11 goals), and looking at the comments on social media during last month’s Champions League final it seemed as though anyone connected with Wales was watching from behind the sofa. Whenever Bale went into a tackle there was a state of panic among Welsh fans and journalists, and Twitter was bordering on meltdown when he attempted an acrobatic volley while suffering with cramp.
“I jumped and my calf just went,” says Bale, clenching a fist to show how it tightened. “I couldn’t even see the ball. I was trying to get my calf out of cramp. After the game my friends let me know everything that happened [with the way people reacted]. And the boys here were like: ‘Calm down.’ But in [Milan], I couldn’t think about the Euros. The Champions League final is a massive game that I wanted to win.”
While his status in the game and achievements at Real Madrid have turned him into a revered figure at home, Bale is excited that representing his country in France will be able to inspire youngsters in a way that he was unable to experience when growing up in Wales.
“I’ve never seen Wales [in a tournament] so I have never thought: ‘That can be me,’” he says. “You watch the tournaments when you are younger, France 98 was probably the first I remember clearly. You wish you could be there – now we are and hopefully we can make a statement. For the Welsh fans, they have someone to cheer properly, like we didn’t when we were younger.”
For Bale, it seems fitting that Slovakia are their first opponents in France. He made his Wales debut just over a decade ago, aged 16 years and 315 days, against Trinidad & Tobago and five months later became the youngest player to score for his country when he executed a brilliant free-kick against Slovakia in his first competitive international appearance. Wales lost 5-1 that day in their heaviest home defeat since 1908, yet Bale will not have a bad word says about the game. “It’s a good memory, I’ve still got the [goalscoring] record,” he says, smiling.
The journey for Wales since then has been anything but straightforward. Bale talked about a long process on the field and difficult times off it, none more so than when Gary Speed died in November 2011, leaving everyone devastated. Chris Coleman, after a difficult start, has picked up the pieces and there is now a special bond between the players and the staff.
“It’s made us come together, stronger,” Bale says. “We’ve had to go deep to bring our emotions out, bring it on to the field. In this campaign you’ve seen it – after every game we are all in huddles. We’ve been through so much and to be here now, I think we appreciate it more than other countries and we just have to give it a go.”
With that Bale was almost done. He had an appointment to keep with the hairdresser at the team hotel and also needed to get back to maintain his unbeaten table-tennis doubles partnership with Wayne Hennessey, the Wales goalkeeper. As for England, their time will come and Bale, in a final word of warning, has not forgotten what happened with the rugby. “Yes, even in the recent World Cup when we won,” he says. “But England don’t get that, do they?”
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