Bale can light up dull Euros
ROUND OF 16
WALES v NORTHERN IRELAND
(Tonight, 11.50pm, Singtel TV Ch 142 & StarHub TV Ch 220 - Eleven EURO)
If ever a fractured country needed Gareth Bale to do his duty, it's now.
The latest battle of Britain must be played beneath the gloomy shadow of a lost battle for Europe.
Britain must leave the European community, but Bale isn't going anywhere, not just yet.
Tonight, he takes on the Northern Irish in the Round-of-16 clash in Paris, a fascinating contest awash with sporting and political undertones.
The backdrop of a much larger European canvas has relegated Euro 2016 to the sidelines, but Bale can change that. He must change that.
His charming wit has served as a soothing balm for a testy tournament that only now threatens to ignite. Bale brings the promise of a spark.
Throughout the group stages, he was a rare light amid too much shade.
Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo are forced to act out that bizarre Yin and Yang pantomime at Real Madrid, but the "good cop, bad cop" routine has returned for a surreal encore in France.
Ronaldo threw tantrums and tape recorders. He pouted and pounded on his chiselled pecs, an eternal picture of frustration and disappointment that somehow tapped into the wider mood in France.
But Bale played the Mafia hitman, a killer who came with a smile.
Three goals in three game hinted at the latent ambition that drives those gazelle-like legs past fullbacks; that drove a wide-eyed kid to leave Wales in search of English Premier League glory and then convinced a British footballer to swop the creature comforts of domestic life for the tougher challenges in Spain.
Bale belongs among the greatest, rather than the great contenders, because his career has been steeped in risk. He has never taken the path of least resistance.
Like all elite athletes, he remains a restless, success junkie. He is addicted to winning, as if his hunger for personal and collective achievement can never be truly satiated.
In this regard, he is no different to Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Robert Lewandowski, Eden Hazard or any number of attacking behemoths with patchy records at Euro 2016.
But Bale's appearances, both on and off the pitch, are distinct in one aspect. He can't stop grinning.
With the obvious exception of the England defeat, he could always be found smiling beguiling, those perfect teeth melting housewives' hearts everywhere.
Bale is nobody's fool. His outspoken agent is negotiating a new Real Madrid contract that will elevate his deserving client to the ranks of the highest-paid sportspeople on the planet. Bale knows how to play to the gallery.
But his sincerity in a Wales jersey is unmistakable, along with the pride in his voice and the unbridled joy in finishing above England.
Joy is a key word. Not only is it a key component of Bale's emotional make-up, it's also conspicuous by its absence at Euro 2016, a tournament still toiling beneath many political and literal dark clouds. (The weather in northern France has mostly been terrible).
The suggestion that Bale indulged in Mourinho-like mind games is too simplistic to seriously consider. The truth is less complicated and more profound.
Most of the Welsh boys grew up together not so much with a chip on their shoulder, but with an entrenched understanding that they were the poor country cousins, constantly peeking over the fence at the fancy neighbours next door.
Bale has suggested as much, underlying the collective spirit harnessed not in a single training camp, but over months, years and even decades.
Coach Chris Coleman didn't create a siege mentality, but merely channelled one that had long existed, emphasising and deliberately contrasting the Welsh bonhomie with England's traditional surliness.
The varying nature of England and Wales press conferences reached such a ludicrous extreme, with Wayne Rooney's mumbled answers contrasting sharply with Bale's optimistic chest-beating, that the English camp had to revise their closed-door training policy to appease the press.
But the media, Euro 2016 and France generally love the Welsh (and the Northern Irish for that matter) and none more so than Bale.
He's a rarity in modern sport, a stratospheric star who manages to confound physics and remain grounded.
While Ronaldo is an otherworldly, freakish being, and sells himself as such, Bale is the pale-faced cheeky chappy. He's still one of the lads.
When Ronaldo scores, he peels away from teammates to display that tight torso for obliging cameramen.
When Bale scores, he's buried beneath grateful colleagues, a first among equals.
But of course he isn't.
He's the first authentic superstar at Euro 2016, both in terms of talent and consistent performance, and on the verge of becoming something more.
Earlier this week, Welsh crooner Tom Jones admitted he never thought he'd live to see his beloved Dragons deliver at a major tournament.
He also recalled meeting Elvis Presley, the one true king. After tonight, there could be another.
Northern Ireland need team effort to stop Bale: Hughes
Aaron Hughes. PHOTO: REUTERS
Northern Ireland defender Aaron Hughes says keeping Wales' talisman Gareth Bale quiet in tonight's last-16 clash at Euro 2016 will take a team effort - as they have already proven against Cristiano Ronaldo.
The Welsh take on Michael O'Neill's side at Paris' Parc de Princes for a quarter-final spot against either Hungary or Belgium.
Real Madrid star Bale has been on fire, scoring in all three games as Wales beat England to top spot in Group B, and stopping him is occupying Northern Irish minds.
"That's the big question, it's something we're looking at and preparing for," said Hughes, who is a free agent after being released by Melbourne City in April.
"A player of that calibre is always going to be a challenge."
However, putting the brakes on a superstar is nothing new for the 36-year-old.
Hughes was credited with keeping Cristiano Ronaldo quiet the night he won his 100th cap for Portugal in a 1-1 draw against Northern Ireland in October 2012.
Ronaldo drew a blank at Porto's Estadio do Dragao as Niall McGinn put the Irish ahead before Helder Postiga rescued Portugal's blushes with a late equaliser.
Now Hughes, who played for Newcastle United, Fulham and Aston Villa, is relishing the challenge of keeping Bale quiet.
"It's great. One of the best things about playing at a tournament like this is coming up against some of the best players in the world," said Hughes.
"But that night (against Portugal) was a team effort.
"You can never really deal with the threat of a player of that calibre by marking him one-on-one.
"You need to work as a team. It can't be just down to one player, it'll take a big effort from all of us."
Northern Ireland drew 1-1 with Wales in a March friendly in Cardiff and another tight tussle is expected.
"It will be a fantastic game and the atmosphere will be tremendous, as good as any atmosphere we've seen at any game in this tournament," said Hughes.
Northern Ireland striker Kyle Lafferty matched Bale's feats in qualifying by scoring seven goals to send them to their first major tournament in 30 years.
But, having only started one of his side's three games in the group stage, the Norwich City frontman was flustered by the comparison.
"I don't know what to say about that," said the 28-year-old.
"I scored a few in the qualifiers, I haven't got off the mark yet and obviously what a stage it would be to do that on Saturday.
"It's going to be a tough game. Gareth Bale is their standout player, you don't play for Real Madrid by being average. But we have one of the best defences in the tournament."
Nevertheless, Lafferty bullishly backed Northern Ireland to win the title on their debut at a European Championship Finals.
"With this squad of players, I honestly believe we can go the whole way, it may take some luck, but we'll upset a few teams, so we will," he added. - AFP.
You need to work as a team. It can’t be just down to one player, it’ll take a big effort from all of us.
— Northern Ireland defender Aaron Hughes