Gareth Bale has described Wales’s glory run to the Euro 2016 semi-finals as the “greatest honour” he has had in his career but the team’s talisman has always believed that they could go deep into the tournament.
On the eve of the showdown with Portugal in Lyon on Wednesday night – which will pit Bale against his Real Madrid team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo – it has emerged that the Wales midfielder Joe Ledley has seen his wedding plans placed in jeopardy. Ledley is due to be married on Saturday; the final is in Paris on Sunday.
“I fully believed that we could do something at this championship and that is why I booked my holiday for 11 July – the day after the final,” Bale said. “Look at the fairytales of Greece and Denmark [at Euro ’92 and 2004] and you think: ‘Why can’t we do it?’
“We grew up as a team in qualifying, and we really learned a lot from our first two games here against Slovakia and England. We were a bit tentative against Slovakia and the England defeat was disappointing. We didn’t play our own game and we got sucked into it all a bit. Since then, we have really progressed and got a lot more confident. We have believed more and more as we have got the results.”
Bale has won the Champions League twice during his three seasons at Real and he was asked how Wales’s campaign compared to those highs. “It’s difficult to describe what’s my greatest moment but for sure this is right up there. And it’s the greatest honour I’ve had. The biggest honour you can have is to play for your country and to be part of history, doing something the country has never been involved in, is an amazing achievement.
“We think it’s our time. We don’t want it to end here. We want to continue the journey and keep on fighting. Hopefully, we can make more history. We are going to go out and enjoy the occasion. We are not going to fear anything. We are not going to freeze.”
Bale cut a relaxed and confident figure, and his tone was bullish. Wales set up the tie against Portugal with a famous 3-1 win against Belgium last Friday, in which they came from behind and produced a performance of style and energy. Bale believes that there is more to come. “We certainly hope so,” he said. “We have been having meetings to talk about the areas we can improve on. We know we played a good game against an incredible team in Belgium, but we still want to keep progressing.
“If we can improve those little one percenters all the way through the team and the performance, it will only help our game. You can never be totally satisfied.”
Chris Coleman, the Wales manager, must contend without Ben Davies and Aaron Ramsey, who are suspended after they received their second yellow cards of the competition against Belgium. Coleman will bring in either James Collins or Jazz Richards for Davies at the back and Andy King or Jonny Williams for Ramsey in midfield.
Collins’s international career had looked to be finished in September 2013 after he fell out with Coleman over his withdrawal from the squad who faced Serbia in a World Cup qualifier. But the pair held peace talks over coffee in Cardiff’s busy St David’s shopping centre, which Coleman admitted had been chosen “so that it could not kick off”. Collins is now on the brink of involvement in the biggest game in Welsh football history.
“Professional players are different to my day but ‘Ginge’ is the closest that I have seen to my era,” Coleman said. “He has that experience and is a bit different. They can’t all be like choirboys. On this trip, it’s been hard for the guys who haven’t been playing. It’s not easy trying to keep that good feeling. The guys who haven’t been playing have been different class and ‘Ginge’ is probably the biggest voice among them all. If it is the big man on Wednesday, I won’t have a worry.”
Bale added: “It’s horrible for Ben and Aaron. The rules are difficult to take. You wish, coming into the tournament, that yellow cards would get wiped. That would give everyone the opportunity.
“You feel for them and I’m sure, deep down, they’ll be hurt but they are not showing it. They are doing everything to get behind the team. It’s given us even more motivation to win the semi-final, so they can play again. We are not doing it just for the nation and the badge, we are doing it for them, as well.”
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