Can Gareth Bale conjure one last miracle against England? Wales must win to reach the last 16
The sun was up again during that endless summer on France’s Brittany coast when Gareth Bale walked into a classroom for a discussion, which has been remembered across the six years for just one of the many words he spoke.
How many England players would make Wales’s line-up? he was asked. ‘None,’ he replied. His discussion of Wales, England and why he wouldn’t have played for the latter, even if it had meant never gracing a tournament finals, was so mesmerising that Bale left the room to a round of applause. ‘We feel more pride and passion than anyone else,’ he said at the Wales base in Dinard.
That confidence was borne of soaring self-belief, at what we now know was the high tide mark of a glorious Welsh footballing generation. But contrast the way Bale has assiduously avoided any perceived slight on England in his precious few public appearances out here.
Talismanic forward Gareth Bale has long been his country’s hero leading the line for Wales
‘I know you are trying to get me to say something about England,’ he said to an innocuous question about topping the group. And your heart sank.
Everywhere you turned in the summer of 2016 there was Welsh gold dust being sprinkled on a joyless, grey, lumpen England.
After Ray Lewington, Roy Hodgson’s assistant, inadvertently revealed England’s team-sheet, Wales manager Chris Coleman brandished a line-up of his own which he let the cameras capture.
It was a 4-4-2 formation of Cafu, Moore, Beckenbauer, Carlos, Zico, Charlton, Socrates, Best, Pele and Maradona. Recreating such nimble spirit is nigh on impossible amid the desolation of Friday’s defeat by Iran.
In the aftermath, you longed for Bale to walk into a room once more and deliver the kind of reassurance of which Dafydd Iwan, activist, politician and writer of the anthem Yma o Hyd (‘Still Here’) would be proud.
Rob Page’s must defeat old rivals England on Monday to have an chance of progression
But it was the defender Chris Mepham insisting that these players would fight the good fight, that the handbrake was off and that Wales would be the ‘wounded animal.’
One day, we will find out whether Bale considers the move to Los Angeles to have been a mistake. It would have been an almighty comedown to have signed for Cardiff City, a side five points off the bottom of the Championship having sacked manager Steve Morison after ten games, but he might at least have arrived in Qatar fully fit.
The struggles of club football — marginalised at Real Madrid and a less significant part than he would have wished at Tottenham — have come at a cost for the one team and squad that he holds close.
With only Ethan Ampadu holding down the fort Page will need to shore up his leaky midfield
The same goes for Aaron Ramsey. If Wales manager Rob Page were selecting on form, Ramsey would not feature in the starting line-up against England and Bale would have his work cut out, too.
Some of the vibrant army of Wales fans here were yesterday subscribing to the view that both might be used as impact substitutes, but there is too much history for that to happen. Page will not want to tarnish what could very well be their last appearances in a Wales jersey.
If Page were selecting on form then Aaron Ramsey would likely miss out
If both are selected, Page must find a way to stem the central space available to Iran on Friday, when only Ethan Ampadu, who plays his club football at lowly Spezia, in Serie A, held the fort. Joe Allen will be crucial if Wales are to hold England for 80 minutes.
Wales would need a 1-0 win to qualify if USA and Iran were to draw, and they will be hoping that the anxiety of an England side who could be eliminated if defeated will play into their hands. The memory of 2016 can perhaps do most for them.
England will be reminded of the clip of Wales celebrating Hodgson’s team’s ignominious exit to Iceland — filmed by Jonny Williams and posted in a WhatsApp group. But Wales have the 2-1 group stage defeat to England in Lens to motivate them. Daniel Sturridge’s winner came in the 91st minute.
The two sides met at Euro 2016 in France when Daniel Sturridge scored an injury-time winner
The players comforted themselves after that defeat with a group meal that included burger, chips and a Nutella pancake but it’s not been forgotten. Eight of that squad are in this one. ‘We were so devastated,’ Williams said. ‘It would be nice to get a result against them here.’
Suddenly, manager Coleman’s rallying call from that Dinard summer seem more appropriate than ever.
‘As a nation, we have always settled for too little,’ he said. ‘To go that extra mile, you have got to be a bit different to what has come before.’
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