Gareth Bale has described Wales’ journey from the football wilderness to the World Cup as “crazy”.
Wales qualified for their first World Cup in 64 years by beating Ukraine 1-0 in a pulsating play-off final in Cardiff on Sunday.
But little more than a decade ago, Wales were languishing 117th in the world and ranked below Guyana, Haiti and Mozambique.
Bale was part of that young team and has long been his country’s talisman, inspiring Wales to qualify for the European Championship in 2016 and 2020 and now a first World Cup since 1958.
“It’s been a crazy journey from where we were to qualify for two European Championships and a World Cup,” said Bale. “It’s literally what dreams are made of, especially for all of us who have been there from the start.
“We’ve paved the way for the youngsters as well, we’ve welcomed them in and it’s hard to describe what it means to us. I think we were too young (to have targets) when we started. We were just happy playing for Wales.
“But we’ve been playing with each other for a long time now. You just get better and you grow. Players become bigger and stronger and we’ve gelled well as a team. There’s no egos in our team, we just fight for each other.”
Bale became the most decorated British player in Champions League history when Real Madrid beat Liverpool last week.
The 32-year-old won European football’s top competition five times during his nine-year stay in Spain, and he says playing at a World Cup will complete his playing CV.
He said: “If you’d asked me when I was a young kid to do what I’ve done in my career…I would have taken 10 per cent of it. This is the final piece in the jigsaw, to play at a World Cup.
“To do what we’ve done for this nation, to put them on the world stage, the world map, it’s everything for these fans. That’s what we try to do for them.
“We’ve had some horrible downs, some incredible highs. We’ve stayed kind of level and focused through the whole journey. It probably wasn’t the best performance but, in finals, it doesn’t matter.”
Bale provided the game’s decisive moment against Ukraine with a 34th-minute free-kick that was headed into his own net by Andriy Yarmolenko.
It was officially ruled an own goal but Bale insisted it should have been recorded as his 39th for Wales, saying “it’s my goal”.
He also paid tribute to goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey, who made nine saves in a defiant man-of-the-match display.
“It was the best from a goalkeeper I’ve ever seen. Honestly it was insane,” Bale said. “Wayne’s doesn’t get the credit he deserves. He’s a legend. It’s not just nine saves, but important saves, big saves.
“He kept us in the game and I wouldn’t swap him for any other goalkeeper in the world. Not even close.”