Wales end 58 years in the international wilderness when they kick off their Euro 2016 campaign against Slovakia in Bordeaux on Saturday and Gareth Bale says it is “nice to be involved for a change”.
Not since 1958, when they were knocked out by Brazil in the World Cup quarter-finals, have Wales been involved in a major tournament.
However, armed with the world’s most expensive player in Real Madrid’s Bale, Chris Coleman’s men mounted a successful qualifying challenge, finishing second in their group behind Belgium.
Bale has already spoken of his desire to do more than “make up the numbers” in France and he is thankful of the opportunity to play an active role, having watched previous tournaments from the comfort of his sofa.
“Obviously, we’re all looking forward to it first and foremost,” he told a news conference. “The whole nation’s looking forward to it and the support we’ve had from everybody here and back home in Wales has been immense.
“It really inspires us now to do even better and we hope we can do the nation proud.
“It’s been a bit surreal, especially with Wales having not been there for so long.
“Every time when a major championship went on, I was always at home watching on TV. To actually be involved now is amazing.
“We want to take it all in and enjoy it. It’s a new experience and we want to enjoy playing good football.
“It’s nice to be involved for a change and hopefully now we can do the nation proud.”
Bale has succeeded where scores of Welsh greats have fallen short before him. Ian Rush, Mark Hughes and Ryan Giggs headline a list of players who never got their chance at a major tournament.
Asked which star from yesteryear he would like to play alongside, Bale selected Giggs, explaining: “For me, he was my hero growing up. He was an amazing player and it would have been amazing for him to play on an international stage like this.”
Bale insists he is “100 per cent” fit following his Champions League-winning exploits with Madrid a fortnight ago, while Wales expect Joe Allen, Joe Ledley and Hal Robson-Kanu to be available.
In the case of Ledley, selection would represent a remarkable recovery after sustaining a leg fracture just a month ago.
Slovakia, who join Wales, England and Russia in Group B, make their European Championship debut as an independent nation and will be looking to the likes of Marek Hamsik and Martin Skrtel for inspiration.
Jan Kozak’s men head to France on the back of an eight-match unbeaten run that included a 3-1 win against the world champions in Germany.
And there should be goals in this fixture – the last two meetings have seen the away side score five.
Key Opta stats:
– This is Slovakia’s second major tournament after the 2010 World Cup, where they were knocked out in the last 16 by Netherlands.
– Vladimir Weiss made six assists in the qualifying campaign, the joint-highest total alongside Poland’s Arkadiusz Milik and Israel’s Eran Zahavi.
– Only four players scored for Wales in the qualifying campaign, fewer than any of the teams that have made it to Euro 2016.
– Gareth Bale’s first goal for Wales was against Slovakia in October 2006. He scored from a direct free-kick.
– Bale scored or assisted nine of Wales’ 11 goals (82%), the highest ratio in the Euro qualifying campaign among teams to have made it the 2016 finals.
– Bale had 52 shots in the qualifying campaign, more than any other player from any team. That equated to 39% of Wales’ total attempts (52 out of 134).