Dinard (France) (AFP) – Gareth Bale will have the taunts of team-mates past and present echoing in his memory when he takes to the field for Wales in Wednesday’s Euro 2016 semi-final against Portugal.
Bale saw five major tournaments come and go over the first 10 years of his career, but with Wales having ended their 58-year wait on the international sidelines, the 26-year-old is making up for lost time.
Chris Coleman’s side have created a sensation by reaching the last four in France and it has given Bale reason to recall with a smile the jibes to which he was once subjected.
“I have had a lot of abuse over the years,” the Real Madrid forward told reporters at the Wales media centre in Dinard, northwest France.
“Just when we used to lose and when we were (ranked) 100th in the world. You have nine weeks’ holiday instead of two.
“It is good to finally be in a major tournament, actually doing great things with our national team. It is great to be a part of.”
Should Bale reach the final, he could find himself facing Germany midfielder Toni Kroos, his Madrid team-mate, who took a dim view of Wales’s chances prior to the tournament.
“I remember Toni Kroos saying we’d only have three games. So it would be nice to meet him in the final,” Bale said with a smile.
“It was a good laugh and a joke, a bit of banter. But we’ve obviously exceeded a lot of people’s expectations. We understand that and we’re just enjoying it now.”
Wales’s stunning 3-1 victory over Belgium in the quarter-finals took the team into uncharted past their previous best major tournament showing of a last-eight finish at the 1958 World Cup.
But Bale says that the atmosphere within the Wales camp is “exactly the same”, with regular quizzes helping to prevent the players dwelling on the enormity of what they have achieved.
– Denmark and Greece inspiration –
“We’re still doing our quizzes,” said Bale, who is on a quiz team with Chris Gunter, Joe Allen, Hal Robson-Kanu, Danny Ward and Ben Davies.
“We won again today. That is six in a row now. We’re on fire!”
The squad have also been watching as many games at the Euro as possible. Bale praised the unrated Iceland for their “amazing journey” to the quarter-finals, where they lost 5-2 to France.
With Wales now flying the flag alone for the minor nations, Bale is drawing inspiration from Denmark and Greece, who defied expectations to win the European Championship in 1992 and 2004 respectively.
Having arrived in France after a second Champions League triumph with Madrid, Bale had his eyes on the final from the start — unlike some of his team-mates, who have had to hastily rearrange holiday and even wedding plans as Wales have voyaged deeper into the tournament.
“I fully believed that we could do something. That is why I booked my holiday for the 11th (the day after the final). I am not like the others,” he said.
“I fully believed that we could do something. You see the fairytale of Greece and Denmark and stuff, and you think: ‘Why can’t we do it?'”
Inevitably, Wednesday’s game has been portrayed as a shootout between Bale and his Madrid team-mate Cristiano Ronaldo, who captains Portugal.
Former Wales midfielder Ryan Giggs, who has played with both players, entered the debate on Monday, telling CNN that on current form, he would want Bale in his team over the Portugal number seven.
But Bale gives the comparisons short shrift.
“It’s irrelevant, to be honest. Everyone says it’s me and Ronaldo, but it’s Wales v Portugal,” he said.
“We could both not have a kick all game and a team will win, so it’s really not about us. I’m sure the press will hype it up, but I know full well it’s about us as a team.”
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