Bale hails qualification with Wales as better than Champions League win
Forward’s six goals and two assists propel Coleman’s side to France
Gareth Bale celebrates qualifying for next summer’s European Championships in France. Photo: Srdjan Stevanovic/Getty Images
Gareth Bale has put Wales’ qualification for Euro 2016 on the same level as winning the Champions League with Real Madrid. Wales ended their 58-year wait for a major finals appearance on Saturday night, despite losing 2-0 to Bosnia-Herzegovina in Zenica.
Cyprus’ 2-1 victory in Israel stamped their passport to France next summer and Bale will now avoid joining the illustrious Welsh players of the past, such as Ian Rush and Ryan Giggs, who failed to play at a major tournament. “This is right up there to be honest,” said Bale, who scored when Real beat Atlético Madrid in the 2014 Champions League final. “Everyone knows how important Wales is to me and how proud we are to all play for our country. It ranks on a par with everything else, if not top.”
Bale has won the Champions League, Copa del Rey and the Super Cup since joining Real from Tottenham in the summer of 2013 for a world record £85.3 million fee. The 26-year-old has played a huge role in his country’s Euro 2016 qualifying success, scoring six and assisting two of Wales’s nine goals, as well as becoming a vocal leader in Chris Coleman’s side.
Speaking after Wales’ first defeat in 11 competitive matches, Bale said: “It is hard to put into words what we have achieved. I have never celebrated a loss like that. But it is not about one game, we did a lot of the hard work beforehand. It is something we have been working for since we started.
“The dressing-room has been a lot of fun and it is something we have been working hard for. Now we have done it, we have crossed the line and will enjoy the occasion.”
Wales’s only previous tournament appearance came at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden when they qualified through the back door. Having failed to progress from their group, Wales became a ‘lucky loser’ when Israel were ordered to play an eliminator against European opposition after Arab countries had refused to meet them in the wake of the Suez Crisis two years earlier. Wales were drawn from the pot after Belgium passed up the opportunity to play Israel and they eventually reached the quarter-final, losing 1-0 to Brazil as a 17-year-old Pelé scored his first international goal.
Wales will finish their campaign against group minnows Andorra tomorrow night with Welsh football preparing for its biggest ever party. The game at the Cardiff City Stadium is a 34,000 sell-out and Bale expects to start after completing his first full 90 minutes in Zenica for nearly a month.
Italy and Belgium joined Wales in confirming their places at Euro 2016 on Saturday, though unlike Chris Coleman’s side they both crossed the finish line with a victory.
Italy made certain of a top-two place in Group H with a match to spare by beating Azerbaijan 3-1 in Baku. Eder opened the scoring for Antonio Conte’s men and although Dmitri Nazarov’s equaliser gave Italy a fright, goals from Stephan El Shaarawy and Matteo Darmian made sure of the win.
Belgium overtook Wales to move to the top place in Group B following a comprehensive 4-1 rout of Andorra. Radja Nainggolan, Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard and Laurent Depoitre found the target for the visitors.
Marc Wilmots’ men could even afford a missed penalty from Hazard – who also scored from the spot – as they moved two points clear of Wales.