It is little more than 24 hours from Wales’ biggest game since 1958, their last appearance at a World Cup, when they were knocked out at the quarter-final stage by a 17-year-old Pelé. The Cardiff City Stadium is going through final rehearsals. Grounds staff trundle horizontally across the pitch with mowers. The plinth, home to the match ball, is packed away, giant Wales and Ukraine flags rolled up, the Uefa banner that carries a message for global peace folded up, and the national anthems sound over the speakers. It is, as Robert Page is at pains to say, business time.
Only someone is missing. Instead of the Wales captain, Gareth Bale, conducting the pre-match press conference, it is down to the affable defender Connor Roberts to hold court on the fourth floor overlooking the pitch. “You’ve had the short straw really, haven’t you?” Roberts says, smiling from ear to ear. “Budget version of Gareth Bale.”
Asked about the condition Bale, among those rested for Wednesday’s Nations League defeat in Poland, is in, Roberts quips: “The best shape, that’s why he’s not here. He’s played in bigger games than all of us put together probably and it’s going to be another occasion.
“As a teammate I’ll be looking towards him to create something for us and to drag this country to a World Cup, like he has done many times, dragging us to wins, dragging us to big moments. He’s an unbelievable player and I’ll be as happy as anyone if he does it again.”
Bale’s tailor-made programme calls. He is finessing the final nuggets of his preparation, receiving treatment from physios to ensure he is tip-top for kick-off. Since last August he has played 330 minutes for his country, 40 more than he has for Real Madrid, whom he departed after nine years and 16 trophies this week. There is no time for hiccups.
“Apologies but unfortunately the game comes first,” Bale says, grinning on a video call an hour later from the training base a few miles outside the Welsh capital. “We’ve only ever played in one World Cup, so this is a stepping stone all of us want to take to play on the biggest level and we have a massive game that we are desperate to win to achieve our goal.”
For Bale, whose future is thought to hinge on whether Wales make it to Qatar in November, it is a chance to add a World Cup to his otherwise fully loaded CV. One of his greatest nights came in Kyiv four years ago, when his sumptuous seconds-half overhead kick helped Real past Liverpool to win the third of his five Champions League titles.
Bale’s official take on that strike? “An OK goal,” he says. “It’s surreal knowing that you’ve been to Kyiv itself and Ukraine – just seeing the pictures and reading about what’s going on is heartbreaking. Nobody wants a war to happen, we want it to stop as soon as possible. There are so many families and kids stuck there and [who] can’t do anything. It’s a horrible situation. It’s still difficult to talk about because it’s still going on.”
Bale and his teammates recognise everyone outside Wales will be rooting for Ukraine, whose victory in Scotland was their first competitive game for almost eight months. “We’ll be the most popular team in the stadium, that’s the main thing,” he says. “We understand the awful things going on in Ukraine. Our hearts go out to the kids, families and people of Ukraine. We’ve all felt awful during this time and not been able to do too much. But it’s a game that we want to win.”
David Brooks, who was given the all-clear last month after cancer treatment, will join the group for what is sure to be an emotionally charged game. Bale’s character will be key to keeping a relatively youthful squad grounded. “We can’t get carried away with if we’re going to win and qualify,” the 32-year-old says. “We have to concentrate on this difficult game.
“We have enough experience in the squad not to do that and the ones who maybe start to sneak off we can bring them back down to earth and make sure they are ready and raring to go for kick-off.”
Bale’s laser focus is on leading Wales to a victory that would make all of his teammates heroes. The ground, he says, will be a cauldron of noise, the supporters Wales’ “12th man”. The speculation around his future – a move to Major League Soccer has been mooted, as has the unthinkable prospect of him playing regularly in this stadium for Cardiff City – can wait, even if he is sure to have a stack of offers. “Yeah, I’ve got loads,” he says with that goofy grin.