Bordeaux - Gareth Bale and Wales will play their inaugural
European Championship finals game on Saturday mixing the joy of a special day
with nerves over whether they can get back to winning ways.
The Group B game against Slovakia will be the first time
that a Wales team has appeared at a major tournament since June 19, 1958 in
Gothenburg, Sweden, when a 17-year-old Pele settled a World Cup quarter-final
in Brazil's favour and consigned the Welsh to the international wilderness.
The years in between have brought a succession of failed
managerial regimes and agonising near-misses, but come kick-off, the call of
the country's long-suffering football fans will finally be answered.
"It has been a bit surreal being here, especially with
Wales having not been there so long," Bale told reporters at the team's
Dinard base in Brittany on Thursday.
"Whenever there was a major championship on I would be
sat at home, watching on TV, so to be involved is amazing.
"I imagined qualifying. It was one of my dreams to do
so, but to make dreams come true is not easy."
Welsh dreams were realised last October when, despite a 2-0
defeat away to Bosnia-Herzegovina in their penultimate qualifying match, Chris
Coleman's side secured their place in France.
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- Joy and uncertainty -
The final game, a 2-0 home win over Andorra, became a
90-minute party, as players, staff and fans united in celebration of the team's
feat and in memory of former manager Gary Speed, who committed suicide in 2011
after sowing the seeds of the side's revival.
Jubilation, however, has given way to uncertainty in the
months that have followed. Wales have failed to win any of their four
subsequent friendlies, losing to the Netherlands, Ukraine and Sweden and
drawing 1-1 with Northern Ireland.
Bale, though, had been absent until Sunday's 3-0 loss to
Sweden in Stockholm, where he came on as a second-half substitute.
The Real Madrid forward's return to the starting XI, as a
free electron operating behind a lone striker in Coleman's 3-5-1-1 formation,
will give his team-mates -- and Wales's fans -- an incalculable lift.
- Slippery wingers -
Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey will line up with him, but
Joe Ledley is due to start on the bench after Coleman said it would be
"reckless" to start him just a month after he fractured a fibula
playing for Crystal Palace.
Striker Hal Robson-Kanu, meanwhile, has declared himself fit
to start despite sustaining an ankle injury in a pre-tournament training camp.
While Wales go in search of lost momentum, Slovakia enter
the tournament on the back of an eight-game unbeaten run that includes a
stunning recent 3-1 win away to world champions Germany.
Jan Kozak's side also beat defending European champions
Spain in qualifying and are looking to emulate their achievements at the 2010
World Cup, when they knocked out holders Italy before falling in the last 16.
Like Wales, Slovakia are appearing at their first European
Championship and will also come up against Russia and England in Group B.
Right-back Peter Pekarik says that his team-mates are in
"The atmosphere is great," he said.
"We have good experience and players from quality
teams, so now it's necessary to transform our positive energy into our
performance. We will do everything to keep Bale out of the game."
Bale will relish the thought of running at Slovakia's old
school centre-backs Martin Skrtel, the captain, and Jan Durica.
But with slippery wingers like Vladimir Weiss and Robert Mak
in Kozak's armoury, Slovakia are well placed to exploit the spaces left by
Welsh wing-backs Chris Gunter and Neil Taylor.
Slovakia's only injury doubt concerns left-back Tomas
Hubocan, who has missed their last three friendly games with a toe problem.
Dusan Svento will continue to deputise if he cannot prove his fitness in time.
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