Gareth Bale: The maligned Real Madrid star once again proves the savior of Wales

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Gareth Bale was the world’s most expensive player when he joined Real Madrid from Tottenham for £85m in 2013

Long live Gareth Bale. The song Wales fans serenade their captain with includes a line about how he allegedly faked a back injury to avoid being called up to Team GB’s squad for the Olympics in 2012.

That’s why those fans noted with amusement that it was the same part of Bale’s body that was blamed for his absence from Real Madrid’s squad in last Sunday’s loss to Barcelona.

It was the latest in a long string of injuries that have marred Bale’s time in Spain and, for the country’s football media, the latest betrayal.

He may have won four Champions Leagues, two La Liga titles and a truckload of other trophies with Real but, according to some in Spain, Bale’s inaction for his club – and his continued heroic service to his country – makes him a “parasite”.

When he was pictured smiling while training with Wales this week, days after missing El Clasico, the front-page headline of Spanish newspaper Marca was sarcastic: “It doesn’t matter anymore wrong.”

Bale has played two hours of football in six months for Real and has made just two appearances since the last international window in November, but on Thursday he was Wales’ savior again.

It was written. In a one-win World Cup play-off semi-final at home to Austria, Bale scored two stunning goals to inspire a 2-1 victory and rekindle his legend.

His stunning first free-kick sparked delirious scenes in an emotional Cardiff City Stadium. His celebration, an impassioned roar and a grab of his Wales badge, matched the goal.

Was there more to his cry for the television camera than pure joy? Was there a message there for his detractors in Spain?

“I don’t need to send a message,” he told Sky Sports. “I have nothing to say, it’s a waste of time.”

But then he added: “It’s disgusting. They should be ashamed of themselves. I’m not bothered, end of.

“I can take a free kick if I’m able to play. It was nice to see him come in.”

While such moments have become rare for Bale in a Real Madrid shirt, Wales fans need not be reminded of their icon’s propensity for outrageous game-changing moments.

It may have been his first international goal from a free-kick since Euro 2016, but it was his 37th for Wales in total, extending his record as the all-time top scorer in men’s football.

And just to underline the fact that he is still capable of greatness, Bale added a superb second, taking the ball in his stride and unleashing a powerful strike into the far corner.

It was heckling in the Canton Stand, a riot of red shirts and bobs and a rendition of Don’t Take Me Home, the anthem of Wales’ odyssey to the Euro semi-finals 2016.

Merely qualifying for this tournament was a significant achievement for Wales, who had been absent from major tournaments for 58 years until then.

They continued by reaching the knockout stages of Euro 2020 and, thanks to their victory over Austria, Robert Page’s men are one victory away from qualifying for a first World Cup since 1958.

“I don’t think it’s well integrated yet. What a game, what a night, what an occasion,” Page said.

“The star man shows up – I just told him that’s the best free kick I’ve ever seen in my life.

“He didn’t play many minutes but at least he trained day by day. Did we expect him to play 90 minutes? Probably not.

“We knew we would get an exceptional hour from him. At the end he cramps up and we take him off.”

Wales’ play-off final will be a draw against Scotland or Ukraine, likely in June.

Bale said at the start of this campaign that this could be his last chance to qualify for a World Cup, and that it would be a feat to rank alongside his many illustrious exploits at club level.

Now he is just one game away.

“That’s half the job done,” Bale said.

“We are going to enjoy tonight. There is yet another tough game against Scotland or Ukraine and we will be ready for it when it comes.”

Who’s to say he can’t produce more magic to get Wales to that elusive World Cup? Even a bad back can’t stop it.

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