As the cry of “USA, USA” reverberated around Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, the giant screens showed Gareth Bale determinedly chewing gum and looking into the middle distance. Wales’ totem looked to be in the zone and ready for campaign that was 64 years in the making. The last time Wales played a World Cup games was also when the world came to know of Pele. That doesn’t seem right for a country proud of its football, one which has produced legends such as Ian Rush and Ryan Giggs to name a couple.
So, on Bale’s broad shoulders lay the responsibility to make a difference. Wales had made the semi-finals in the 2016 European championships and survived the group stage of the last iteration of the continental competition. Given that this was effectively a battle for the second place in the group where England had stamped their authority – after all, only eight teams in the last six World Cups have advanced after losing their first match – the onus was on Bale to get Wales off the blocks despite only 687 minutes of football at Los Angeles FC this season.
Eighty-two minutes later and after being peripheral till then, Bale blinked himself into focus, exhaled and stepped up to take the penalty he had won after Walker Zimmerman had gone through him. Having made his most telling contribution for the night with a shot that arrowed into the corner, Bale exhorted the crowd to get behind his team. Conspicuous in their red and looking like rows of tomatoes in a neat vegetable garden from high up in the media tribune, they duly did.
“We have changed Gareth’s position though he can still play wide, anted to give him freedom. He is intelligent and gets into spaces where if you don’t get a tackle right, it’s a penalty. He looks after himself irrespective of the minutes he plays at the club. I had said 75 minutes and when I asked him, he said, I am fine,” said Wales coach Rob Page. “England are favourites, USA second favourites but there will be surprises along the way,” he said.
For most of the game, Wales, who are19th in the FIFA rankings, accorded USA more respect than was deserving for a team perched five slots above them. And it left Bale, 33, chasing lost causes mostly before going into half-time on a booking for a tackle from behind on Yunus Musa. The roar the stadium gave out would have reached Saudi Arabia if not Abu Dhabi. Just another indication that it would be a long night for the man whose order of preference once had golf before Real Madrid.
One minute before the yellow card, in the 42nd, Bale had been dispossessed by Ream who then denied Aaron Ramsey an attempt at finding the team’s lodestar.
Bale’s first real attempt to find a teammate came in the 17th minute but he couldn’t play to right wingback Connor Roberts on the overlap. Ditto in the 23rd though this time it was his attempt to find Ramsey that was intercepted. Once goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey, who along with Bale has over 100 international caps, tried to beat USA’s pressing pack by going long. But under pressure, Bale couldn’t control and there was no one to win the second ball.
By then, USA had taken the game to Wales as coach Gregg Berhalter had said he would want them to. At an average of 25 years and 175 days, they are the youngest team in this competition and they played with all the energy of youth. Christian Pulisic showed industry and enterprise of the kind he rarely does at Chelsea and with Timothy Weah ensured that Wales’ full backs were pegged in their half. When they did try to advance, Nico Williams was twice felled in quick succession, tackles that fetched Sergino Dest and Westin McKennie bookings.
Barring a Josh Sargent header that went wide, there weren’t many clear chances though till Weah struck. Pulisic initiated the move, breaking through and Weah timed his run down the middle right to score with a smart flick. Pulisic is 24 and Weah, who came to India for the under-17 World Cup in 2017 and is possibly the only World Cup player whose father is a country’s president and a former world’s best player to boot, is 22. That they would combine to score was fitting on a day Bukayo Saka and Jude Bellingham gave England a rousing start.
The goal got Wales out of their stupor but though they were braver in the second half, Ben Davies’ flying header which Matt Turner palmed away and Keiffer Moore’s header that narrowly missed the mark from the ensuing corner-kick were the closest they came to the equaliser. Back in the World Cup after failing to qualify for Russia, USA kept fizzing the ball into the front third, Pulisic driving most of the raids but couldn’t produce a telling final ball. Yet it seemed the kids would be all right and encapsulating the night would be Pulisic dispossessing Bale in the USA penalty area around the 70-minute mark. The old order changeth and all that. And then Bale scored Wales’ first goal since 1958. Write him off at your peril.