New generation emerging from Bale's shadow to leave Wales on brink of another major tournament

Fri, Mar 22, 2024
Soccer News (AP)

New generation emerging from Bale's shadow to leave Wales on brink of another major tournament

The post-Gareth Bale era looked particularly daunting for Wales.

After all, how could a principality with a population of 3 million really replace its best ever player, a Real Madrid great, once the most expensive signing in soccer history?

Maybe they needn't have worried.

With Bale having retired after the World Cup in Qatar and another stalwart, Aaron Ramsey, on his last legs, the Welsh needed a new generation to emerge and blossom - and that's what has happened.

On Tuesday, a youthful Wales will look to reach a third straight European Championship tournament when Robert Lewandowski and Poland visit Cardiff City Stadium in one of three playoff finals.

Tellingly, it would be the first time this century that Wales secured qualification for a major tournament without Bale, for so long the team's inspiration and the man who would come up with those important goals time and again.

"It would be just as good as the others, better in some ways," said Wales captain Ben Davies, the old head of the team at age 30. "It's different times. We don't have Gareth Bale this time. That's a big loss for Wales, our greatest ever player. But that doesn't mean there's a different feeling within the camp. We are more than confident with the squad we've got."

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That was shown in the way Wales swept past Finland with a 4-1 win in the playoff semifinals on Thursday to set up that all-or-nothing encounter with the Poles. Among the scorers was David Brooks, a midfield playmaker just recently given the all-clear after cancer treatment; Brennan Johnson, a forward who is just starting to establish himself at Tottenham, one of the top teams in the Premier League; and Dan James, a winger who is rebuilding his career at second-tier leader Leeds after a brief spell at Manchester United.

It's these kinds of players with their own interesting back-stories and career arcs who are coming out of Bale's shadow now that Wales' most-capped men's player (with 111 appearances) and record scorer (with 41 goals) is no longer around.

"We've lost superstars with Gaz (Bale) and Joe (Allen)," Wales center back Joe Rodon said. "It was always going to be difficult for us in the transition period but there is a really good balance in the group."

Crucially for Wales coach Robert Page, he has players playing regularly for their clubs now. That was often not the case with Bale and Ramsey, who were regularly troubled by injuries and used to arrive for Wales duty far from match sharp. Not that that affected the extraordinary Bale too much.

Ramsey, for example, was named in the latest Wales squad despite having not started a game for six months. Now at Cardiff, the 33-year-old midfielder managed 25 minutes in his latest comeback from injury - on Saturday - and was training alone at times ahead of the Finland game.

In the past, Ramsey would have had to play even if he wasn't fully fit. Not anymore.

"We're in a different position because we've got a younger squad, a fitter squad, we've got players who are playing regularly," Page said.

The age profile of Wales' squad must excite their fans. Central midfielder Jordan James, 19, is highly rated and plays for second-tier Birmingham. Johnson is only 22 and joined Spurs for more than $60 million last year. Harry Wilson, 26, is starting to blossom at Fulham. Then there's Lewis Koumas, an 18-year-old who scored on his debut for Liverpool last month and isn't in Page's squad yet.

Wales has had many big-name players down the years - Ryan Giggs, Ian Rush, Mark Hughes, Neville Southall and most recently Bale - but not necessarily the backup to support them.

With this latest crop, it might prove to be the opposite.

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AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer

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