LONDON, Sept 4 (Reuters) - With pundits and supporters taking a first appearance for Wales at the European Championship finals for granted, debate has moved on to whether Gareth Bale is the greatest player ever to represent them.
The Real Madrid forward’s superb header won Thursday’s Group B game in Cyprus and meant he has scored or assisted in eight of the nine goals that have taken his country to within three points of reaching France next summer with three games to play.
They have a home game against the minnows of Andorra to come next month but can ensure qualification on Sunday by winning at home to Israel, whom they beat 3-0 away last season.
Although the whole team has improved significantly in shooting up to a record ninth in the FIFA rankings, Bale has produced inspirational performances from a position just behind the main striker.
Even when kept quiet for longish periods, as Cyprus managed in Nicosia, he has still come up with a defining moment or two.
“I think Gareth Bale is the greatest player ever to play for Wales,” said BBC pundit Robbie Savage, who won 39 caps and was involved in one of their many near-misses -- a play-off defeat by Russia that cost a place at Euro 2004.
“His performances have been ridiculously good,” Savage added.
Welsh fans expressed the same sentiments last November, voting Bale the best of all-time in a poll at Wales Online (www.walesonline.co.uk).
It is a big claim for those old enough to remember John Charles, “the gentle giant”, star of the only Welsh team to have qualified for a World Cup.
Charles, regarded as world class at both centre-half and centre-forward, was the key player in 1958 but missed the quarter-final against eventual winners Brazil, who won it 1-0.
By that time he was already established in Italian football with Juventus, having finished as top Serie A scorer in his first season.
More recent Welsh heroes have included Ryan Giggs and Mark Hughes of Manchester United and Liverpool’s Ian Rush, none of whom ever had the chance to appear at a major tournament.
Giggs even had his commitment to international football questioned, because of the number of friendly games he missed, restricting him to 64 caps in a 16-year period.
Rush remains the leading scorer for Wales with 28 goals in his 73 games.
Few would bet against the 26-year-old Bale, who has 18, eventually overhauling him and thereby gathering more votes as the best Welshman of all time.
Should he help secure qualification in Cardiff on Sunday, Welsh football would have come full circle at last: it was Israel they beat all those years ago in a play-off to qualify for the 1958 World Cup. (Editing by Amlan Chakraborty)