Gareth Bale’s club star has waned but Wales captain remains pivotal | Ben Fisher

Even when Gareth Bale tried his best to play a straight bat, amid questions over his future and rumours of retirement, he wore that warm and slightly goofy grin. Then came his infectious giggle to acknowledge the storm brewing around him. But when Bale pulls on a Wales shirt, he plays as if nothing else matters, free from the circus that is never far from his door. Which is why he has stressed his sole focus is on helping his country to prosper once more on the biggest stage.

What is it about playing for Wales that seems to put a perpetual smile on his face? “Just the pride to play for your country,” Bale says. “There’s no bigger honour in football for me. The way our fans are, how passionate they are, how much they love their football and how much they support the team, it’s a great feeling to have. When you have that love from the fans to the team it makes you even more proud to play for Wales and gives you an even bigger buzz. It makes players happy, and when players are happy they play better as well.”

Bale may be Wales’s captain but he is also the joker of the pack. He was at the heart of the training-ground japes on Thursday when each player was told to take it in turns to suggest a warmup stretch (Kieffer Moore opted for an elegant curtsy squat) or face a penalty courtesy of the head of performance, Tony Strudwick: two jumps on the spot. His best friend in the squad is Wayne Hennessey and, together, they have form for playing a prank or two. At Tottenham last season Bale initiated the “Welsh mafia” – of which he made Son Heung-min an honorary member, alongside Ben Davies and Joe Rodon – to rival “Le mafia”, Spurs’ three-strong French contingent.

Five years ago in France, Bale was among the creme de la creme and, while his star may have waned as Real Madrid shepherded him into the shade and then on loan to Spurs, there is no hiding his importance to Wales. He wears the armband but is a quiet and inspirational presence, offering nuggets of advice to younger players, and makes even the most seasoned professionals feel supreme. “He’s a fantastic leader, one of the best I’ve had,” says Hennessey, the Wales goalkeeper who is approaching a century of caps. “It’s just a shame he couldn’t be a manager one day … if I could put him on the touchline it would be amazing. But I think he’d play golf every single day of his life if he could.”

Bale knows he is the protagonist but the inhibitions that have gnawed at him at club level in recent years are washed away when it comes to Wales, who kick off their European Championship campaign against Switzerland here on Saturday. “A lot of people would think it’s a case of ‘Wow, the pressure’s on me to deliver,’ but I think it’s more the other way with Gareth,” says David Edwards, a Wales teammate at Euro 2016.

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“The Welsh public are so grateful to have a Gareth Bale that they don’t put that pressure on him, they’re just so happy we have a player of that quality that they build him up but not in a way to knock him down. Even if Gareth had the worst game of his life, scored a couple of own goals and got sent off, Welsh fans would never lambast him. They appreciate that we are fortunate, as a small country, to have a superstar.”

Hennessey is Bale’s partner for four-balls against Chris Gunter and Aaron Ramsey back at the Vale Resort, Wales’s base outside Cardiff – and the pair go back a long time, having played together for the past 15 years since Bale was a baby-faced left-back in the under-21s under Brian Flynn, before getting to know each other in the first team. “He was so fast back then as well,” says Hennessey.

“His left foot, everything about him, we knew we had a special individual. He played a couple of games at left-back and then he started to creep forward.”

Gareth Bale (centre) and Wales celebrate their 3-1 quarter-final victory against Belgium at Euro 2016.
Gareth Bale (centre) and Wales celebrate their 3-1 quarter-final victory against Belgium at Euro 2016. Photograph: Clive Rose/Getty Images

Bale looks in impeccable shape, perhaps the fittest he has been for a while? “I feel good,” he says. “I feel very sharp, fit, and ready to go. I’ve obviously scored quite a few goals in the last three or four months of the season, and felt my performances were getting better and better each game. So I’ve timed my fitness hopefully to perfection and, hopefully, I can continue that in this group.”

In training this week the 31-year-old, sporting the odd grey hair, has been wearing a white tank top to cope with the searing heat and, with his shorts rolled up towards his hips, his calves and quads bulge akin to a bronzed bodybuilder. Bale may not have scored in his past 11 appearances for his country but interim manager Robert Page knows Wales stand to benefit from his fruitful end-of-season burst at Tottenham, for whom he scored a hat-trick at the start of last month and a double on the final day to finish up with the best goals-per-minute ratio in the Premier League.

Bale’s mere aura fuels belief among teammates – one of whom, Rubin Colwill, spent most of last season playing for Cardiff City under-23s – and strikes fear into opponents often left doing double-takes in the tunnel. “I’ve seen something very similar at Aston Villa with Jack [Grealish], when he’s in the team and when he’s not,” says Neil Taylor, who starred alongside Bale as Wales reached the Euro 2016 semi-finals.

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“There’s a belief about the team when he’s in it. He makes everyone around him play better. He makes better angles; his passes to people are better. If you get a free-kick from 40 yards, you’re thinking, ‘We’ve got someone who can score from here’.”

Davies has seen Bale dazzle for club and country. “Someone like him has spent half his career being man-marked or having two v one against,” he says. “You give him a moment and there are not many players, in two or three seconds on the ball, who can create or score like he does. When he gets that ball on his left foot, it’s phenomenal.”