It was an American reporter who told Gareth Bale on Sunday that he seemed to have a smile on his face answering every question.
That certainly seemed to sum up what the first experience of a World Cup press conference was like for the captain who has so much hope from Wales.
Bale described how France 1998 was his first time watching football’s biggest event – he, aged eight, had a pouch with the tournament logo on it – but even then the absence of his own country had made a difference.
Wales captain Gareth Bale has vowed to inspire the next generation at the World Cup in Qatar
“As a child, not having your country at the World Cup takes away that bit of specialness,” he reflected.
He said he had watched every Wales game since 2000 and it couldn’t have been easy.
From the first game he remembers watching – a 2-1 home defeat to Finland, the national team’s first game at the Millennium Stadium – to the humble finish in the 2014 World Cup qualifiers, when the Faroe Islands topped their country were placed, this world stage seemed unattainable for so long.
Bale has achieved it in the twilight of his career and you can feel he enjoys it all the more for that.
In recent years, these media affairs have so often looked monotonous for Bale, although before he got up to leave on Sunday, he articulated what this all means in words that were heavenly manna and promotional gold for the Welsh FA. .
“In every World Cup I’ve seen there has never been a Welsh flag, so it was difficult to have a favorite team,” said the 33-year-old. “It’s an incredible experience for the youngsters growing up to have Wales at the World Cup. One I wish I had.
It’s history in our country. Schools are going to stop to watch our games. Children are going to miss school. Lucky for them! It’s a huge piece of history in our country – something we’ve all wanted for so long.’
Former Real Madrid star Bale will lead his country in their World Cup opener on Monday
The “million dollar question,” as boss Rob Page put it, is whether this individual, whose 30-foot-tall image is wrapped around a skyscraper here, will still have what it takes to deliver when the competition kicks off tonight.
Wales’ match against the US at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium is the first of three in nine days.
Bale certainly feels there is no problem with his minimum playing time for Los Angeles FC in the MLS since June. “I’m exactly where I want to be for the first game,” he said.
Other observers believe his ability to make a 90-minute contribution is irrelevant. “He only needs a few minutes in these group stage games to win them,” said Graeme Souness over the weekend. Time will tell.
The player Wales probably needs as much as Bale does is Joe Allen, who – when fit – is the cognitive core of a midfield that is otherwise the weakest part of their team.
Page and Bale appeared to be playing mind games with the US over the 32-year-old’s condition. Page said Allen, who has been out since September 17 with hamstring problems, would not play.
Bale later suggested this was news to him: “He’s out, right? OK” — before going on to say, “I don’t think he’s disfellowshipped. Never say never.’
The idea of the so-called ‘Welsh Xavi’ game seems far-fetched, although Page has been a surprise at times like this before. He picked Kieffer Moore at the start of last summer’s European Championships, despite saying for weeks that Harry Wilson would be the striker.
Page didn’t seem overly impressed when he heard that US manager Gregg Berhalter had described his squad as very physical. “Very physical,” he repeated, laughing.
Robust was another word Berhalter used, although it was US midfielder Kellyn Acosta who had said in this match that the inexperienced US – who have the second youngest squad after Ghana – should kick Bale across the field to subdue him.
“I haven’t talked to him here,” Bale said lightly of his LA teammate. ‘I’ve been trying to keep him from kicking me for the last two weeks before we got here!
“I’m used to getting kicked on the pitch. I’m sure it will be a fair but tough match, played in a great atmosphere. Both teams will want to win.’
Wales gave as best they could on the eve of this moment in the nation’s history. Prime Minister Mark Drakeford, who is here to watch the side play, gave an impressive and stylish response to FIFA President Gianni Infantino’s speech, saying Western countries should examine themselves before questioning Qatar.
“Wales is an outward-looking, inclusive nation where people’s rights are really important to us,” Drakeford said. ‘But that wasn’t always the case. To reflect on our own history, not a moment has been wasted.”
If there are any concerns that Monday night’s referee is Qatari, Page did not reveal them. Nothing would stand in the way of the rich historical significance of this moment.
Bale said: ‘As a child you dream of seeing Wales at the World Cup. To actually be on the team that achieved this is incredible.”