LONDON (Reuters) - Few players at Euro 2016 have had a bigger impact on their team than Gareth Bale who dragged Wales to their first major tournament since 1958 by scoring seven and setting up two of their 11 goals in qualifying.
The Real Madrid forward will join Wales after playing in a second Champions League final in three years and his status among the world’s top players contrasts with that of many of the squad, fewer than half of whom play in the top flight.
Bale’s three-year spell with Real’s galacticos has done nothing to dampen his enthusiasm for playing for his country, however.
He said Wales reaching the European Championship in France was the finest moment of his career, quite a statement from a player who has scored in a Champions League final.
Bale has grown in confidence since leaving Tottenham Hotspur three years ago to join Real and has notched up 19 league goals this season, his best tally so far. He has also overtaken Gary Lineker as the top-scoring Briton to have played in Spain.
He has excelled in Real’s so-called ‘BBC’ attacking trident, with Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo, and carried the Spanish team on his shoulders in their absence in the final stretch of this campaign, a role he is familiar with for Wales.
Playing in Spain has forced Bale to develop his tactical understanding of the game and he has made a concerted effort to improve in every aspect, demonstrated by his nine headed goals, more than any player in Europe. He has bulked up too.
The only negative note has been a recurrence of muscle injuries, limiting him to 27 starts out of a possible 49 games.
Bale’s fitness will preoccupy Wales manager Chris Coleman and his staff leading up to, and during, the tournament as it is difficult to see them getting out of a group containing England, Russia and Slovakia without their talisman.
Editing by Neil Robinson