Welsh wonder Gareth Bale revels in role of home-town hero

The Galactico may have had his struggles at Real Madrid, but he rarely fails for Wales

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The Independent Football

Even for a Galactico, next season is shaping up to be the biggest in Gareth Bale’s stellar career as Wales dare to believe the end of their 58-year wait is in sight.

The world’s most expensive footballer lived up to his billing as a man for the big occasion, and while he may have had his struggles at Real Madrid, this season he rarely fails for Wales.

Chris Coleman, the coach, knows Bale holds the key to his side reaching a major finals for the first time since 1958 and his winner against Belgium brought them a step closer. He could hardly have picked a better moment to show his class once more. Among the 30,000 spectators inside the Cardiff City Stadium was his new manager at Real Madrid, Rafa Benitez.

“I spoke to Rafa at the team hotel before the game. So I guess it was good to get a good win in front of the new boss,” Bale said. “Next season could be really special. Everyone knows how much I want to get to a major tournament with Wales. It’s right at the top of the list and right now the chance is on. We just have to keep working hard.”

It was a special night for Bale. “It was very emotional because I had all my family and friends in the ground to celebrate me reaching 50 caps. But the most important thing was the win,” he said.

The winner was an unexpected gift. An ill-judged header by Radja Nainggolan meant for goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois only found Bale unmarked six yards out to score his 17th international goal, which put him ahead of  legends Mark Hughes and Cliff Jones.

Despite his difficult times in Madrid, where Real fans have sometimes booed him, Bale was guaranteed a hero’s welcome in his home town. “That was probably the best atmosphere I’ve experienced in my career,” he said. “We were under the cosh at times but we dug deep, gave it everything and now we can really enjoy our summer.”

Wales are three points clear in Group B, have beaten the second best side in the world rankings and are set to be among the top seeds for World Cup qualification next time – so different from four years ago when they were 112th in the world.

Wales next face Cyprus and still have Andorra at home in their last four games. Two more wins should book their place in France. It has been a long wait. “We don’t want to be another good team that couldn’t take that last stride towards a major championship,” Coleman said. “I do not see anything to suggest this group will choke.”