Gareth Bale was spotted in a Dinard cafe enjoying a milkshake the other day, taking a short break from the team hotel to inspect the Brittany resort where Wales have stationed themselves for the tournament. Being normal, in other words. “It’s nice to see where you have been staying, so I went to have a look at the local village,” he explains. “The cookie milkshake was lovely.”
Despite England habitually making the tournament experience sound like something akin to exile on Elba, the Real Madrid player and his Wales team-mates insist there is nothing onerous about spending a few weeks away from home. “It’s just like being with your mates on holiday,” Bale says. “Even at this stage in the tournament, in fact especially at this stage of the tournament, we are all happy to be here. That’s because we all get on well together. We fill our spare time with quizzes, golf or watching other matches on the television, and because we are basically all mates we have a good time.
“The quizzes aren’t rocket science or anything. The last one was on films, and my team won. We are top of the league now, but it’s all a laugh and joke really. The team at the bottom of the league or the guy who gets an easy answer wrong cops an absolute load of abuse, but it’s all in a spirit of banter. We are a very jokey, bantery team.”
And doing very well on it, as the only side from the home nations still alive in France. Friday brings a quarter‑final against Belgium which, as Bale says, is an amazing achievement in itself, but with experience of beating Marc Wilmots’s side as recently as the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, he feels Wales can go even further. “We know we have done well and we know the nation is proud of us, but we want to keep riding the wave,” he says.
“Belgium will be favourites – we don’t mind that because they have some top-quality players – but our target is to win the game. Hopefully we can go all the way and win the tournament, but first we have a quarter-final to get through. We are the last home nation still involved, and this is our chance to shine. We have a very good team too. We are not in the last eight for no reason.”
Bale scored a goal on his 50th Wales appearance to help to defeat Belgium in Cardiff, a result that, coupled with the goallesss draw in Brussels in the same campaign, alerted everyone to the potential in Chris Coleman’s team. “Those results gave us all confidence,” Bale says. “After that we had real belief for the first time that we could do well against the very top teams.
“The win in Cardiff was three points that we didn’t expect. Well, maybe two points that we didn’t expect. Belgium were ranked second in the world at the time and were top seeds in the group. After that there was a sort of snowball effect. We qualified in style in the end, and now here we are facing them in a quarter-final. We have reasons to be confident; I think we have more knowledge of Belgium than most other teams. We might even be their bogey team, though of course the situation will be a lot more pressurised in Lille.”
That is where Coleman and his match preparation come in. Almost every Wales player at this tournament has spoken without prompting of the manager’s meticulous approach to readying his team for each challenge. “He leaves no stone unturned,” Bale says. “His preparation for games is second to none.” Yet Coleman does not overburden his players with dossiers on opponents or long lists of instructions. “He tells you just what you need to know,” Chris Gunter revealed earlier in the week. “Not too much, not too little, he just gives you an idea of what to expect.”
Coleman’s light touch appears to extend to the training pitch and team hotel too. If there is a secret to keeping players in upbeat mood off the pitch while still getting the best from them on it, something England appear to have been casting around in the dark to uncover for over the last decade or so, Coleman appears to know it.
“I don’t think there is any great secret apart from fostering a spirit of togetherness,” Bale explains. “We have been doing well for a while now, since the manager put his stamp on the team. We are well organised. We know our strengths and our weaknesses, we know what needs to be done.
“The manager is good in that respect. He likes a laugh and a joke like the rest of us, but you will get a bollocking if you need it. A lot of times he joins in the banter, but we all know how serious he is about the real work. That’s why we’re here.”
Bale’s knowledge does not come to the surface only on quiz nights. Three seasons in the media spotlight in Madrid have clearly done him no harm, and when a potentially mischievous question comes along about England temporarily transferring their support to Wales he defuses it politely and diplomatically. “If England fans want to support us, then by all means support us,” he says. “But our fans who have been there through thick and thin have been incredible and we want to do them proud.”
Following Gunter’s disclosure that Wales’ extended stay in France was severely disrupting his family’s attempts to attend his brother’s wedding in Mexico, and Neil Taylor lamenting that fact that he had booked to see Beyonce in Cardiff without paying too much attention to the date, Bale even has an answer ready when the question inevitably arrives about what he is being forced to miss at home. “Nothing,” he says. “I planned everything for after the final. It looks like I was the clever one.”
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