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Bale's World Cup Dream

Words by Darren Cross

Gareth Bale has just had the most incredible year of his life.

Since joining one of the world’s biggest clubs in a massive move last summer, Bale has taken his game to another level. After scoring on his Real Madrid debut back in September, the unstoppable Wales forward quickly became a fans favourite among a squad of superstars by bagging crucial and often spectacular goals as his club battled for La Liga and Champions League titles. And let’s not forget his breathtaking winner in the Copa del Rey final against Barcelona, which he describes as one of his best individual moments so far.

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So it must feel pretty amazing to be Gareth Bale right now. Life is perfect.

Almost.

A place at this summer’s World Cup finals would have been the ultimate way to end a spectacular season, but Wales finished fifth in a tough qualifying group that included Scotland, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia and an electrifying Belgium side that topped the table without losing a single match.

“Any footballer would love to play at the World Cup finals and obviously that’s not going to happen for me this summer, which is a little bit disappointing,” said the 24-year-old who has 44 Wales caps. “But it’s something our country will work for in the future and hopefully we’ll qualify for a major tournament soon.”

Sitting in front of Bale as we chatted at Real Madrid’s state-of-the-art training ground, it’s easy to see exactly what qualifying for a World Cup tournament would mean to him, and to everyone in Wales.

Gareth Bale Qualify Group table

Video: Gareth Bale talks about playing at a World Cup

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There’s no doubt that, as exciting as Brazil 2014 will be, the tournament would be even more thrilling if Wales and Bale had made it. The Real Madrid star who scored 15 goals and made 12 assists in La Liga this season has the ability to change a game in an instant with his pace, power, awareness, incredible dribbling skills and lethal eye for goal. He’s exactly the kind of player who can create the sort of World Cup moments that make the tournaments so special and so memorable for the millions of fans who tune in from all over the globe.

 

And there isn’t a single team at the tournament who wouldn’t love to have a player like Gareth Bale in their squad, a view shared by Southampton and England’s Adam Lallana, who spent many years with him in the Saints youth system.

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Video: Adam Lallana talks about his past with Gareth Bale

There’s a great mutual respect between Lallana and Bale. Premier League games are shown live in Spain and Gareth knows all about the impact his former team-mate has had this season, and hopes that fans worldwide get to see more of that from Lallana in Brazil. “Adam’s always been great. Even when we were young he always had great feet, vision and that finesse around the pitch,” recalls Bale. Hopefully he can get a place in the starting eleven and really light up the World Cup.”

While Lallana should get the chance to do that in a few weeks time when England kick off against Italy in Manaus, Bale must wait until Russia 2018 for the chance to realise his dream of playing at a World Cup with Wales. He’ll be 28 when that tournament kicks off, an age traditionally thought of as a footballer’s peak years.

Think about that for a moment.

Today, Bale is widely regarded as one of the best footballers in the world. Imagine how good he will be in four years time after training with and playing for Real Madrid at the highest levels club football has to offer. It’s a scary thought for defenders, especially those who have already had torrid times against him, but for Gareth it’s exciting to think about the future.

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“I still feel like I’m improving,” says a determined-looking Bale. “I’m working hard every day in training to improve, and I know I’ve hopefully got years ahead of me – without injuries, touch wood – to keep improving.”

The future for Wales is bright. While Bale is the undoubted star of the team, there are a number of other talented players in the squad who will also have improved individually and as a group by the time qualification for Russia 2018 begins. Swansea’s Ben Davies is a highly rated 21-year-old full-back who already has ten international caps, and Arsenal’s Aaron Ramsey has been one of the stars of the Premier League this season and would surely have had a greater impact had he not been unlucky with injuries.

Statistically Ramsey is one of the best-performing central midfielders from the group of European-based players who won’t be going to Brazil, measured by goals, interceptions, passes and assists. And he’s not the only Wales star who ranks among the best in his position – centre-back Ashley Williams is one of the highest-ranked defenders according to Opta.

So there’s every chance Bale could realise his dream of playing for Wales in the World Cup finals in four years time, but for now he must watch the tournament as a fan, albeit one with a lot of good friends taking part in the competition – the dressing room at Real Madrid is packed with players heading to Brazil.

Video: Gareth Bale talks about the stars of Wales

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Martin Tyler, Alan Smith and Gary Neville talk about what makes Bale special

Of course, he won’t be the only world-class player taking in the action on the TV rather than the pitch. Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic – who starred for PSG in France’s Ligue 1 this season – will also miss out after his team were beaten in a play-off by a Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired Portugal, and Robert Lewandowski, whose Poland side finished fourth in England’s qualifying group, must also wait four years for the chance to shine on football’s biggest stage.

“For the players that are not playing it’s obviously disappointing not to be there,” said Bale. “But the countries that have got there have got there out of their own hard work. I’m sure it’ll be a fantastic tournament and the best team will win.”

And there are many legendary names who never got to show the whole world what they could do at the finals. Alfredo di Stefano, a hero at Bale’s Real Madrid and considered by many to be one of the greatest players of all time, never went to a World Cup despite playing for three different nations. Liberia’s George Weah, a former FIFA World Player of the Year, and Northern Ireland’s George Best also missed out, as did flamboyant France forward Eric Cantona.

Wales have had their fair share of greats who never went to a World Cup, too. Lethal Liverpool striker Ian Rush – The Reds record goalscorer – won over 70 caps for his country but none of them at a World Cup and then there’s Ryan Giggs, idolised by Wales fans, including Bale.

I’m @brazuca, match ball of the 2014 FIFA #WorldCup. Yes I’m a ball. Yes I’m tweeting. Join me on my journey! #ballin

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The best players not going into the world cup

  • Wingers:

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  • Strikers:

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  • Centre Backs:

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  • Centre Midfielders:

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  • Full Backs:

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  • Goalkeepers:

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Data Source : OPTA / Correct as of May 19th 2014

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“It’s always disappointing when players of that calibre don’t get to play in the World Cup,’ said Bale. “But I think the system is there in place for the teams that are the best – that’s all part of sport. Everybody wishes it wasn’t them but for me I’ve still got a bit of time left and hopefully I can qualify for one.”

For Wales fans that don’t want to wait until 2018 to see their team compete with the best at the finals, World Cup glory can come sooner and there’s no need to travel to Brazil in search of it. There are 203 national teams in EA SPORTS’ 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil game and players can rewrite history to qualify for this summer’s tournament with any of them, something Bale will definitely be having a go at.

Qualify Group table