Euro 2020 feature - Gareth Bale and Wales Search for the Spirit of 2016 to get going in 2021
After a difficult opening match for Wales Mike Gibbons ponders what it will take for them to reach the heights they did in 2016. He also wonders about the difficulty in producing a repeat act, something that has affected more teams than just this Welsh outfit under interim manager Rob Page who is in charge for the tournament.
Gareth Bale of Wales during the UEFA Euro 2020 Championship Group A match between Wales and Switzerland on June 12, 2021 in Baku, Azerbaijan
That difficult second series; it’s as hard to nail in football as it is in art. 3
5 years ago, Northern Ireland were in a similar position when they headed to the 1986 World Cup. Four years on from some era-defining heroics at the World Cup in Spain, peaking when they beat the hosts on a memorable night in Valencia, they qualified to take the stage for their second act in Mexico. “The hype was are they going to be as good as they were in Spain,” said Norman Whiteside, “and it’s hard to relive something like that.”
Wales are a nation of broadly comparable resources, and arrived at this European Championship with the same quandary as Northern Ireland all those years ago; just how do you follow the greatest summer in the history of your national side?
Wales' forward Gareth Bale looks during UEFA EURO 2020 Group A match between Wales and Switzerland at Baku Olympic Stadium on June 12, 2021 in Baku, Azerbaijan.
Image credit: Getty Images
There was certainly nothing wrong with the resourcefulness of their players on the pitch in Baku. After a tough opening spell in the second half in which they fell behind to Switzerland, they forced an equaliser just as it seemed their legs were beginning to weaken in the fierce heat.
One key difference between the situations faced by Northern Ireland then and Wales now is their make-up. Where Northern Ireland’s team was still packed with the heroes of Spain, this current Welsh team have blooded a number of new players since they tore it up in France four years ago.
Danny Ward, a squad player in 2016 preferred over stalwart Wayne Hennessey today, produced a number of important saves in Baku. Midfielder Joe Morrell has only been in the team for two years but picked out a delicious ball in to find the header of striking focal point Kieffer Moore for the equaliser. Moore himself is also a recent addition, first capped in 2019. The most dangerous looking player for Wales all afternoon was Daniel James, the jet-heeled young winger still trying to force more regular club football for himself at Old Trafford.
If Wales are to build on this however, you sense they will need to source inspiration from one of their standout players of 2016 and arguably the greatest player in their history.
Gareth Bale is Wales’ captain and highest ever goal scorer, yet so much more; he has won the Champions League four times with Real Madrid, scoring in two of those finals, and is Welsh football’s greatest modern day export. His mere presence is an obvious catalyst for this squad and their supporters.
Yet Bale has arrived at this tournament at something of a crossroads in his career. After being frozen out at Real Madrid a season on loan at Tottenham, where he was twice PFA Player of the Year in 2011 and 2013, has been underwhelming. In Baku he looked out of sorts; unable to affect the game on the right of a front three, unable to cut in and get a shot away off that magical left foot and lacking the gas to get away from defenders that once terrified world football.
Gareth Bale of Wales speaks with Match Referee, Clement Turpin as they walk off at half time during the UEFA Euro 2020 Championship Group A match between Wales and Switzerland at the Baku Olympic Stadium on June 12, 2021 in Baku, Azerbaijan
Image credit: Getty Images
The punishing heat of Baku can’t have helped, nor the Covid-affected club season that preceded this tournament, but Bale’s lack of impact was all the more noticeable for all the definitive contributions we’ve seen on behalf of Welsh football in the past.
Regardless, he’s still Gareth Bale; he still scored 16 times for Spurs despite constricted playing time and Carlo Ancelotti by all accounts wants him back at the Bernabeu.
In recent weeks, he’s been his usual enigmatic self on reports that he’s set to retire altogether after this tournament. For Bale, all that matters right now is Euro 2020. “I’ll sort out the rest after,” he bluntly replied.
In the right here and now, Wales need to sort out enough points against Turkey in Baku and Italy in Rome to stay in the European Championship.
Turkey will have the local support in the former, while their opponents in the latter looked mightily impressive in their opening match. If Wales are to get through Group A they will need a creative spark that they lacked today.
His future might be undecided but if Bale can roll back the years – five of them, to that seminal summer in France – this sequel for Welsh football can also be something memorable.