Wales pin hopes on Bale in battle of the debutants
Published 11/06/2016 | 02:30
The last time Wales played in a major tournament the match was won by a little-known 17-year-old's first competitive goal. That was the quarter-final of the 1958 World Cup but, unlike Pele, the Welsh have not gone on to achieve greater things since.
This evening, however, they will return to the elite stage making their European Championship bow against another competition debutant, Slovakia. It is a landmark moment and the presence of Gareth Bale gives hope that they can emulate the team of John Charles and Cliff Jones and reach the last eight.
With the opportunity there for both teams to etch themselves into history, each are aware of tonight's significance.
"We're delighted to be here, super excited, it's a day we thought it would never happen," said Welsh manager Chris Coleman.
Slovakia captain Marek Hamsik, the Napoli playmaker, concurred: "It's very exciting. We qualified a long time ago and it has been a long wait."
In the circumstances, victory may well go to the team that is the quicker to put the occasion to one side and focus on the match.
Coleman, while emphasising that he wants his players to enjoy the experience, added: "Walking out will be something special, but we have to remember we are not just here to have a smile and a laugh, we have to perform."
Coleman, who turned 46 yesterday, continued: "We should enjoy where we are because we have earned it, but our core values must be the same: we are difficult to play against, we don't give the opposition anything easily. We are hard-working with a splash of brilliance."
The latter comes from Bale. Such is his global stature the first question put to Slovak coach about him Jan Kozak came from a Qatari TV channel, the second from a Spanish newspaper. He will not, though, be the only talisman on the pitch. Hamsik is no less important to his country.
Coleman dismissed Wales' recent patchy form - a stark contrast to that of Slovakia who recently beat Germany - as irrelevant.
"When a big challenge has come, these players have met it,' he said, adding he had "no worry, no doubt, no fear, no concern." (© Independent News Service)