Wales - Slovakia

Bale: a dragon finally breathing fire on the international stage

The Real Madrid man follows in the footsteps of Welsh great John Charles as Wales kick off their Euro 2016 campaign against Slovakia on Saturday

Firstly, we’ll hear a rousing rendition of Land of My Fathers – the Welsh national anthem – belted out by 24,000 beaming Welsh supporters in Bordeaux. Shortly after, the dragon himself Gareth Bale will be unleashed, with the whole country waiting to see him and his teammates breathe fire on football’s big stage. Rugby – Wales' supposed number one sport – will be put on the back burner for a short while.

Balemania

GALES 201610/06/16 EUROCOPA FRANCIA 2016 BURDEOS FRANCIA FUTUR STADE DE BORDEAUX ENTRENAMIENTO GALES GARETH BALE

Yes, Footballmania, Balemania, has finally arrived. The Real Madrid star follows the legend of ‘gentle giant’ John Charles, the last fabulous player to carry the hopes of a nation when Wales appeared at their only major tournament back in 1958. Since then, the Red Dragons have never qualified for a major competition, with Euro 2016 the first ever European Championships they’ve participated in despite having the world’s third oldest football federation (the FAW).

Panenka

Standing in their way on Saturday is Slovakia, a team that could spring a few surprises themselves at this tournament (in South Africa 2010 they managed to get out their group). But like Wales, they’re a country whose best moments have come long in the past rather than in recent memory. They produced some wonderful players in the 60s and 70s. Czechoslovakia won the European Championship in 1976 with half the team coming from Slovakia, although the famous Panenka (known for inventing the cheeky penalty chip) was Czech.

This Slovakia team is an industrious and disciplined outfit. They do have one star man though, Marek Hamsik,a talented player who plies his trade at Napoli. And this is the Slovakia who beat Spain 2-1 in qualifying, remember.

Today though could well belong to Bale, the dragon who wants to fly higher than ever before.