London - 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
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.
Also read: Bale included as Wales push for Euro 2016 place
"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,"
Welsh fans expressed the same sentiments last November,
voting Bale the best of all-time in a poll at Wales Online
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.For
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