At first, those on the bottom stand were unaware that Gareth Bale was going to shoot. The free kick was awkwardly placed, wider than a typical shooting position, but not wide enough for a post. Then the Bale saw him step back on purpose and exhale to slow his heart rate. They stood on their feet and prepared for what might just come if they wanted it enough. Five seconds later, their feet barely touched the floor.
Have you ever seen a better free kick? Do you really have? Add together the improbability of the chance, the size of the situation and the proximity of the ball to the corner of Heinz Lindner’s top corner, and find out – quite frankly – whether your favorite matches on all three fronts. Repetitions can hurt a goalkeeper, slow motion makes them look flatfooted or unattended. See as many as you want (and they will in Wales). Any attempt on the ball was nothing but wasted energy.
Bale scored in the only way he could, the knuckleball technique that deliberately avoids curling from side to side in favor of up-to-down dip. The ball passed a clear foot over the head of Austria’s defensive wall and planted a fleeting kiss on the cheek of the crossbar on the way past.
They had gathered in their crowds from lunchtime onwards Cardiff, tumbling outside the city’s pubs in eerily hot sunshine, a sea of red shirts and bucket hats drowning their nerves and nourishing their noise. There is no ranking of the connection between a national team and its supporters and there is no need to be. Let’s just say that there are few parts of the world where both drive each other in perfect symbiosis just like Wales. It grabs you from the moment you step off the train on match day and keeps you like a fever until you walk again.
Home atmosphere is important everywhere, but Wales really believe that the Red Wall gives them an added advantage. They could have sold out Millennium Stadium, the home of 74,500 seats Wales rugby. But the importance of this match extends far beyond economic play, and at Cardiff City Stadium they have found the perfect natural habitat for an intoxicating cocktail of patriotism and hope of swirling together. Listening to Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau before kick-off is enough to make you want to dig into your legacy of an amazing aunt from Caerphilly.
So Bale would never miss this. His reason for Sunday The Classic Absence was unclear – the official cause was back pain, but Carlo Ancelotti’s explanation was “does not feel right” – and it has caused another round of anti-Bale sensationalism in the Madrid press. But Bale stands on the brink of an extraordinary legacy, the only player from his country to captain them in a World Cup and a European Championship.
The danger was that he – and Ramsey – would be grossly undercooked. Bale has made four league starts in the last 10 months, Ramsey two in the last 11. There is the old saying about the manager starving his players on the ball in midweek because it will make them hungrier after that on Saturday and there is this.
And Bale was rusty. He barely completed a pass in the first 15 minutes. A slight oversight, slightly misty throughplay to Dan James evoked a moan that hung in the air and forced a grimace from the source. But then it does not matter, and it never matters. Wales loves Bale and Bale loves Wales; his presence alone – especially when he is not playing for Real Madrid – makes a difference.
If this is all Bale is now, a late-era musical hall star of a footballer who only plays three stage shows a year but protects his voice in the other months to ensure audiences get the night of their lives is there’s something incredibly alluring about it. Bale has never pretended to have been gripped by football or its moves; at times it has merely proved to be a facilitator of his other great loves.
But you can not for a second, on this or any other evening, doubt his dedication to his country or his phenomenal sense of timing. It only increases his appeal. As the relationship between him and those who despise his priority of international football deteriorates, he moves closer to the bosom of those who adore him. It also fits that he spends most of his time somewhere else, jumping into the parachute to answer Wales’ calls.
Wales is not there yet. They have one more game and they never make it easy. Every major victory seems to come accompanied by at least 15 minutes as bodies frantically dive in front of the opponent’s shot, and every single one of Wayne Hennessey’s touches was cheered as if they had each deserved their own trophies. But they are still alive for now. And even though they are led by one of the most extraordinary football players and football personalities of his time, you suppose they will always be. Wales, WC, Madrid. In that order.