Midway through a rowdy evening last June at Elevens, a sports bar in Cardiff owned by the Wales forward Gareth Bale, the patrons were asked, essentially mid-sip, to leave.
It was a curious request, but, for the tipsy crowd that dutifully filed out, a valid one: A few hours earlier, Bale and the rest of Wales soccer team had qualified for the 2022 World Cup at a stadium a short drive away, and now they were looking for a place to party.
Nobody had to forfeit their buzz. As the players and their families celebrated inside, a throng of fans lingered on the street out front, serenading the team through the bar’s open windows for the remainder of the ebullient night.
“They were all singing in our names, and we were singing back to them,” Bale said in a recent interview. “It was just a cool experience, one that obviously doesn’t happen too often.”
Bale, as anyone familiar with Welsh sports history would know, was understating things just a bit. His country’s one and only appearance at the World Cup was in 1958, and its fans, as the parties that night showed, have been desperate for things to sing about ever since.
As the captain and the face of the Wales national team, and as its most talented and accomplished player, Bale, 33, has taken that responsibility on his shoulders. When Wales was thrown into a single-elimination playoff this year for a World Cup berth, he scored both goals in the team’s 2-1 semifinal win over Austria before delivering the free kick that produced the winner in its 1-0, qualification-clinching victory against Ukraine.
Closing down his bar for his teammates, then, was only one of many clutch plays Bale has made in Wales’s colors this year. Now he will be asked to do it all over again.
On Monday, Bale will lead his teammates against the United States in their opening game at the World Cup. He has waited his whole life for that moment. Wales has waited even longer than that.
Soccer and rugby are the only two sports in which Wales competes as a nation separate from Britain, leaving the national teams to carry a cultural responsibility that extends far outside the bounds of the game. In a political environment where concepts of Welshness are being more deeply pondered, and more forcefully asserted, the teams serve as vehicles for collective expression.
A Brief Guide to the 2022 World Cup
What is the World Cup? The quadrennial event pits the best national soccer teams against each other for the title of world champion. Here’s a primer to the 2022 men’s tournament:
In their own small way, this year’s World Cup team is reinforcing a national identity, shining a light on it, almost playing it into being. Ask a Welsh fan, for instance, what it would feel like to beat England, another of its Group B opponents, on Nov. 29.
“Sport is really important in Wales in telling the Welsh people, telling the wider world, that Wales is a nation,” said Martin Johnes, a professor of history at Swansea University. “In the absence of any kind of political entity, in the absence of any linguistic unity — with Welsh spoken by a minority of people — and with political divisions, sport has been something that the Welsh tend to unite behind.”
Rugby has long been considered the national game of Wales, but a poll conducted this year showed that soccer had edged ahead as the country’s most popular sport. And there has been no more influential figure in Welsh soccer than Bale.
Bale first rose to stardom as a player for Tottenham Hotspur in England, then moved to Real Madrid in Spain in 2013 for what was at the time the world’s largest transfer fee.
In almost a decade in Spain, Bale amassed a case full of trophies and a trunkload of spectacular individual goals. His game mixed refined skill and pure power. He never possessed the balletic style of certain other top players; instead, he always looked more like an action movie star running from an explosion.
But his tenure at Real Madrid soured over time, and as injuries and inconsistency ate into his playing time, sections of the Madrid-friendly news media and the club’s fans criticized him as disengaged and unreliable. Bale, at times, toyed with the narrative instead of pushing back.
“I definitely was treated slightly different to others,” Bale said, adding that, on the whole, he still looks back fondly on his years in Spain.
With Bale’s contract with Madrid expiring last season, news reports citing anonymous sources, had suggested that he would retire from soccer altogether if Wales did not book a ticket to Qatar. (Bale declined to comment on his plans.)
A few weeks after Wales beat Ukraine, Bale signed with Los Angeles F.C., one of the top teams in Major League Soccer. He announced his arrival with a couple of skillful goals in his first few games, then made only sporadic contributions in rare bursts of playing time for the next four months as L.A.F.C. advanced to the championship game.
Bale’s contribution in that final, though, would erase the memory of his negligible season. With L.A.F.C. behind, 3-2, in the second half of extra time, Bale, who had entered as a substitute only minutes earlier, outjumped Philadelphia Union defender Jack Elliott, the tallest player on the field, to head in the tying goal. His team went on to win the game, and the championship, in a penalty-kick shootout.
“One of the things that’s scary about Gareth Bale is he can do things like that,” U.S. Coach Gregg Berhalter said this month. “Elliott is how tall, 6-5? 6-4? And he dunked on him. He has that explosiveness.”
Kellyn Acosta, a midfielder for L.A.F.C. and the U.S. national team, said the qualities that once made Bale one of the world’s top players were still visible, if only in shorter bursts.
“You definitely see glimpses of it, but come the World Cup, I think he’ll be a different beast,” Acosta said. “Especially when you’re representing your country, you give maybe a little bit more, whether people like to hear that or not. It’s just it’s a different feeling.”
For Bale, in particular, the sentiment seems true. If critics abroad have labeled him an insouciant superstar, he is almost universally celebrated in Wales as a tireless team player. Amid the bitter end to his time in Madrid, then, the Wales team became even more of a haven.
After growing up watching the national team through lean years — “a lot of memories, obviously not loads of amazing ones,” he joked — Bale began to play a central role in its resurgence after making his national team debut as a 16-year-old in 2006.
The high point of his international career, until now, was scoring three goals in Wales’s scintillating run to the semifinals at Euro 2016, in what was the country’s first appearance in a major tournament since 1958. The performance provided a measure of catharsis for the country’s long frustrated fans. But it also allowed them to believe they could do more.
How has Bale become so synonymous with the team? His numbers, on one hand, speak for themselves: He is the country’s leading goal scorer, with 40 goals in 108 appearances. Yet it is his spirit that fans seem to value most. Not only does Bale help put Wales, a country of 3 million, on the map — he does it with pride.
“Bale talks about Wales as if he cares,” Johnes said. “He talks about Wales in exactly the same way the fans do.”
This was no more apparent than after Wales’ tense win over Ukraine. After the game, in the pouring rain, Bale stood front and center as the team belted out “Yma o Hyd” — a nationalist folk song from the ’80s (its name translates to “Still Here” in English) that celebrates the survival of Welsh language and culture — in the middle of the field, television cameras in their faces.
Bale does not speak Welsh, but it hardly mattered. Those words were etched in his mind long ago. Soaking wet, he was beginning to grasp what the team had achieved, along with the adventure now ahead. He was overcome with joy.