Having ensured their respective countries’ maiden Euro qualification, the outcome of today’s Wales and Slovakia clash may boil down to which of the two superstars comes out on top
Bordeaux: Distinctive haircut? Check. Multiple national player of the year awards? Check. Feared attacker with a vicious shot and the freedom to roam all over the pitch? Check, check, check.
Gareth Bale and Marek Hamsik would be able to reflect upon the many things they have in common were they not lining up against each other for Wales and Slovakia in Saturday’s Euro 2016 opener in Bordeaux.
Gareth Bale and Marek Hamsik
The two players — topknot-sporting Bale, 26, and mohican-crested Hamsik, 28 — inspired their respective countries to qualify for a European Championship finals for the first time and the outcome of the match may boil down to which of the two players comes out on top.
Rafael Benitez, the only man to have coached both players, remarked during his time at Napoli that if Bale was worth 100 million euros ($113.6 million) — the fee it cost Real Madrid to sign him — Hamsik was “priceless”.
Two years later he was the Madrid coach and had revised his evaluation of Bale sufficiently to put the Welshman at the forefront of his plans, granting him a central role that briefly threatened to put even Cristiano Ronaldo in the shade.
Saturday’s game brings Bale’s international career full circle. It was against Slovakia that he scored his first Wales goal — an arcing free-kick in an otherwise bleak 5-1 mauling in Cardiff in October 2006 that made him, at 17 years and 35 days, his country’s youngest goal-scorer.
Back then he was a floppy-haired left-back learning his trade with Southampton, but after blossoming into a free-scoring attacker at Tottenham Hotspur, his move to Madrid turned him into a two-time Champions League winner and global star. “To have a chance to play at such a young age was a little bit of a surprise, I suppose, but something I really wanted to do,” Bale told the UEFA website this week.
Wales vs. Slovakia: Sony SIX, Sony SIX HD, SONY ESPN & SONY ESPN HD, 21:30