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Bale Watching

England is about to face a battering ram named Gareth Bale

Musto Design
Musto Design

Gareth Bale cost Real Madrid a little more than £85 million — a world record in 2013, and one that hasn’t been eclipsed since. It’s more than the GDP of at least one Polynesian island nation, and it’s more than the transfer fees of all of his Wales teammates put together — but somehow, it seems like the Champions League winners still found themselves a bargain:

That is what the most expensive player in the world should look like: A one-man fast break, unconcerned with what a line of white paint typically suggests, turning some sterile possession into a Copa del Rey–winning goal in less time than it takes to back out of your driveway. A wing-hugging fullback when he first arrived at Tottenham from Southampton in 2007, Bale has since evolved into into an outside-in battering ram in the Spanish capital. Five years ago, maybe he would have kept running down the sideline, maybe he would have played in a cross, and maybe someone else would have scored. But the new version of Bale — the one in that clip — is an electric current with only one destination. From the moment he looks over his shoulder, every movement’s meant to build up momentum directly toward the goal.

Of course, he’s not always running the ball across the goal line. Before moving to Madrid in 2013, Bale’s final year with Tottenham was filled with goals like the one he scored against Slovakia over the weekend:

Bale, it seems, has solved the low-odds game of long-range shooting. Despite a steady diet of long-distance bombs, he’s scored at least half a goal per 90 minutes in every season since his last campaign with Spurs in 2012–13. That year, expected goals put him at only 11 for that season, but he scored 21. And Bale has also outperformed his expected-goals numbers in two of his three seasons at Madrid. In other words, it’s happened enough times to be more than just luck. He’s not quite Steph Curry spotting up from 40 feet, but he’s the closest thing that soccer has to it.

When you can shoot and dribble like Bale, it bludgeons the defense and opens up space for your teammates. Despite not being a creative passer in the traditional sense — slipping in through balls that no one else saw, weighing passes that break the laws of acceleration — he’s used his two elite skills (shooting and on-ball athleticism) to become an elite creator. In two of his three seasons at Madrid, he’s had at least half an assist per 90. Throw in his sudden transformation into the Karch Kiraly of Headers, and Bale has become the most versatile attacking player in the entire world.

While he can do it all, Bale still rarely has to at the club level, where he’s surrounded by the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Luka Modric. But that’s not the case with a Wales squad that otherwise relies on the vapors from Aaron Ramsey’s dye job and the receding hairline of a 22-year-old winger. Bale’s scored or assisted on 10 of his country’s past 13 goals. Against Slovakia, he played most of the game as a lone striker — the golden tip of a driftwood spear — throwing his body at whatever near-openings the defense seemed to present. Bale ran around with a manic desperation that’d be useless for Madrid, but seems utterly vital for the Welsh.

An outsize star isn’t anything new for Wales — before Bale it was Manchester United’s Ryan Giggs, and before Giggs it was Liverpool’s Ian Rush, but neither one qualified for a major international tournament. Because of that, it was always fun for non-Brits to play the “What if the United Kingdom was one team?” game, but what we’re about to get from Bale and England might be even better.

As the gods of ping-pong balls and glass bowls would have it, the two nations were drawn into the same group. They play on Thursday, and thanks to Russia’s late equalizer against England, the table is shifted slightly in Wales’s direction. Bale, who’d easily be the best player in Roy Hodgson’s side, started trolling the Three Lions a few months ago, when he suggested that England were an unaccomplished press creation. Then, on Tuesday, when he was asked how many England players would start for Wales, Bale said, “None.”

The real answer is closer to nine or 10, but the lopsided rosters are part of what make the international version of this sport so compelling. Given enough time, the best, most balanced sides will eventually come out on top. Except, one match (or the seven it would take to win the tournament) isn’t enough to drown out the noise a superstar can create. Soccer is a team game, but as Barcelona found out a few years ago, when Bale is playing, sometimes it isn’t.