September 25, 2022

It is just over 24 hours away from Wales’ biggest game since 1958, their last appearance at a World Cup, when they were knocked out in the quarter-finals by a 17-year-old Pele. The Cardiff City Stadium is going through final rehearsals. Field staff walk horizontally across the field with mowers. The plinth, which houses the match ball, is stowed, the giant flags of Wales and Ukraine rolled up, the UEFA banner bearing a message for world peace folded and the national anthems ring out from the tops -speakers. It is, as Robert Page insists on saying, business time.

Only someone is missing. Instead of Wales captain Gareth Bale leading the pre-match press conference, it’s up to affable defender Connor Roberts to hold the pitch on the fourth floor overlooking the pitch. “You really had the short straw, didn’t you?” Roberts said, grinning from ear to ear. “Economic version of Gareth Bale.”

Asked about Bale’s condition, among those rested for Wednesday’s Nations League defeat in Poland, Roberts joked: “Best form, that’s why he’s not here. He’s probably played in bigger games than all of us combined and it will be another occasion.

“As a teammate, I will look to him to create something for us and lead this country to a World Cup, as he has done on many occasions, leading us to victories, leading us to great moments. He’s an incredible player and I’ll be as happy as anyone if he does it again.

Bale’s bespoke program calls. He is polishing the last nuggets of his preparation, receiving care from physiotherapists to ensure he is on top form for kick-off. Since last August he has played 330 minutes for his country, 40 more than he has for Real Madrid, who he left after nine years and 16 trophies this week. There is no time for hiccups.

“Apologies but unfortunately the game comes first,” Bale said, smiling during a video call an hour later from the training base a few miles from the Welsh capital.

“We’ve only ever played in one World Cup so it’s a stepping stone we all want to take to play at the highest level and we’ve got a massive game that we’re desperate to win to achieve our goal.”

For Bale, whose future would hinge on Wales arriving in Qatar in November, it’s a chance to add a World Cup to his otherwise hefty CV. One of his finest nights came in Kyiv four years ago, when his sumptuous second-half header helped Real beat Liverpool to win the third of their five Champions League titles.

Connor Roberts in action for Wales in the World Cup playoff semi-final against Austria in March. Photograph: Charlotte Wilson/Offside/Getty Images

Bale’s official take on this strike? “An OK goal,” he says. “It’s surreal to know that you’ve been to Kyiv itself and Ukraine – just seeing the photos and reading what’s going on is heartbreaking. Nobody wants a war to happen, we want it stop as soon as possible. There are so many families and children stuck there and [who] can’t do anything. It’s an awful situation. It’s still difficult to talk about it because it’s still going on.

Bale and his team-mates recognize that everyone outside of Wales will support Ukraine, whose win in Scotland was their first competitive game in almost eight months. “We will be the most popular team in the stadium, that’s the main thing,” he said. “We understand the horrible things happening in Ukraine. Our thoughts are with children, families and Ukrainians. We all felt bad during this time and we couldn’t do too much. But it’s a game we want to win.

David Brooks, who was given the green light last month after cancer treatment, will join the squad for what is sure to be an emotional match. Bale’s character will be essential in keeping a relatively young team on the ground. “We can’t get carried away with winning and qualifying,” says the 32-year-old. “We have to focus on this difficult game.

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“We have enough experience in the team not to do that and those who maybe start to slip, we can bring them down to earth and make sure they are ready and eager to start.”

Bale’s laser target is to lead Wales to a victory that would make all of his team-mates heroes. The pitch, he says, will be a cauldron of noise, the ’12th man’ of the Welsh supporters. Speculation around his future – a move to Major League Soccer has been mooted, as has the unthinkable prospect of him playing regularly at this stadium for Cardiff City – can wait, although he is sure to have a stack of offers. “Yeah, I got plenty,” he said with that goofy smile.