Gareth Bale and Wales will play their inaugural European Championship finals game on Saturday, mixing the joy of a special day with nerves over whether they can get back to winning ways.
The Group B game against Slovakia will be the first time that a Wales team has appeared at a major tournament since June 19, 1958 in Gothenburg, Sweden, when a 17-year-old Pele settled a World Cup quarter-final in Brazil’s favour and consigned the Welsh to the international wilderness.
The years in between have brought a succession of failed managerial regimes and agonising near-misses, but come kick-off, the call of the country’s long-suffering football fans will finally be answered.
“It has been a bit surreal being here, especially with Wales having not been there so long,” Bale told reporters at the team’s Dinard base in Brittany on Thursday.
“Whenever there was a major championship on, I would be sat at home, watching on TV, so to be involved is amazing.”
“I imagined qualifying. It was one of my dreams to do so, but to make dreams come true is not easy.”
Welsh dreams were realised last October when, despite a 2-0 defeat away to Bosnia-Herzegovina in their penultimate qualifying match, Chris Coleman’s side secured their place in France.
Joy and uncertainty
The final game, a 2-0 home win over Andorra, became a 90-minute party, as players, staff and fans united in celebration of the team’s feat and in memory of former manager Gary Speed, who committed suicide in 2011 after sowing the seeds of the side’s revival.
Jubilation, however, has given way to uncertainty in the months that have followed. Wales have failed to win any of their four subsequent friendlies, losing to the Netherlands, Ukraine and Sweden and drawing 1-1 with Northern Ireland.
Bale, though, had been absent until Sunday’s 3-0 loss to Sweden in Stockholm, where he came on as a second-half substitute.
The Real Madrid forward’s return to the starting XI, as a free electron operating behind a lone striker in Coleman’s 3-5-1-1 formation, will give his teammates -- and Wales’s fans -- an incalculable lift.
Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey will line up with him, but Joe Ledley is due to start on the bench after Coleman said it would be “reckless” to start him just a month after he fractured a fibula playing for Crystal Palace.
Striker Hal Robson-Kanu, meanwhile, has declared himself fit to start despite sustaining an ankle injury in a pre-tournament training camp.
While Wales go in search of lost momentum, Slovakia enter the tournament on the back of an eight-game unbeaten run that includes a stunning recent 3-1 win away to world champions Germany.
Jan Kozak’s side also beat defending European champions Spain in qualifying and are looking to emulate their achievements at the 2010 World Cup, when they knocked out holders Italy before falling in the last 16.
Like Wales, Slovakia are appearing at their first European Championship and will also come up against Russia and England in Group B.
Right-back Peter Pekarik says that his teammates are in high spirits.
“The atmosphere is great,” he said.
“We have good experience and players from quality teams, so now it’s necessary to transform our positive energy into our performance. We will do everything to keep Bale out of the game.”
Bale will relish the thought of running at Slovakia’s old school centre-backs Martin Skrtel, the captain, and Jan Durica.
But with slippery wingers like Vladimir Weiss and Robert Mak in Kozak’s armoury, Slovakia are well placed to exploit the spaces left by Welsh wingbacks Chris Gunter and Neil Taylor.
Slovakia’s only injury doubt concerns left-back Tomas Hubocan, who has missed their last three friendly games with a toe problem. Dusan Svento will continue to deputise if he cannot prove his fitness in time.