It was into the 100th minute when Kellyn Acosta unceremoniously upended Gareth Bale. Unsurprisingly, too. Bale was in the centre circle, some 55 yards from goal but it was Gareth Bale, he was lining up a shot and, more than virtually any other player of his generation, Bale specialises in magical moments. A caution was a small price to pay to prevent a second of the evening.
The first was reward enough for Wales: a first World Cup goal since the 1950s bringing a first point at this level since Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency and, if there can seem something prosaic about scoring penalties, it certainly did not feel that way when Bale stood 12 yards from Matt Turner. He had skied a spot kick in Euro 2020 but this was placed perfectly. “I am the penalty taker,” said Bale. “I have to take responsibility. It’s about stepping up for your country.”
Few have stepped up more often than Bale. Already his country’s highest scorer, he joined Chris Gunter on a national record 109 caps in Doha. That, however, was not why it was a landmark night. After 106 goals for Real Madrid, Bale had one in a World Cup. He had scored in the biggest club game of all in two World Cup years, 2014 and 2018, but, as the flag famously indicated, Wales could matter more than Madrid; more, even, than golf.
Bale’s 41st Wales goal was remarkable in part for his longevity, and not merely because his debut came before the 2006 World Cup, so long ago that Zinedine Zidane was still playing. He scored in the 82nd minute: not remarkable for anyone else, but he has only played 28 minutes of club football since September. He had completed a full game once since March. He had vowed to play three sets of 90 minutes for Wales in Qatar but, with this tournament’s propensity for ludicrous amounts of added time, was still going in the 100th before the final whistle eventually blew.
“Irrespective of what he does at club level, he manages to pull the jersey on for Wales and give performances that surprise people and he certainly surprised me today,” said manager Robert Page. “I said to him on about 75 minutes, ‘Are you okay to carry on?’ and he went, ‘Yeah, I’m, fine’. And at the end of the game, he said, ‘That’s why I stayed on; for the penalty.’”
When he had completed his 100 minutes of national service, fittingly, the first person he hugged was Aaron Ramsey. More than any other players, they took Wales out of the wilderness. Earlier in their international careers, Wales slipped to 117th in the Fifa’s rankings. A presence at the World Cup gives them a status in the elite 32, perhaps with a chance of reaching the last 16, and they have been to the final four of a European Championship with Bale and Ramsey; to a considerable extent, because of Bale and Ramsey. It was Ramsey to Bale to win the penalty; the 33-year-old no longer possesses the explosive pace that rendered him so devastating at his peak but he was sharp enough and clever enough to beat Walter Zimmerman to the ball and lure him into an injudicious challenge.
There were points in the preceding 79 minutes when it was tempting to wonder if Bale was the worst player on the pitch; amongst the most anonymous and the most immobile. Page argued he has to play within himself, to save himself for the moments when he can effect a huge difference. “If he’d have gone full-tilt from the first whistle, he probably wouldn't have lasted until half-time,” he said. “But he’s very experienced and clever at managing his body.” That frame is not as flexible as it once was. There were a couple of times when Brenden Aaronson darted away from Bale with conspicuous ease, showing the merits of younger legs. Bale’s first half was notable largely for a booking he collected for a challenge on Yunus Musah; unfortunate as he felt, it put him a mistimed challenge away from an ignominious exit. A later, and clean challenge on Aaronson felt fraught with danger if he had got it wrong.
But he did not. Bale belongs in that select group of footballers who often seem capable of writing their own scripts. He has developed a relish for the big occasion. As long as he lingered on the pitch, he carried the potential to make something happen. The later it got, the more seismic an intervention from Bale seemed; the more necessary, too. It duly arrived. “It’s all about Bale-o, rightly so,” said Page. “He’s never let us down.”
And, for the second time in November, he had a huge impact on football in America. From the 128th-minute equaliser in the MLS Cup final to the 82nd-minute leveller in the World Cup, Bale has shown his ability to shape events with his magnetism. Cometh the moment, cometh the man. Again.