Column: With Euros win, Wales shows it isn't just about Bale
PARIS (AP) For much of Gareth Bale's footballing life, the recipe his teammates have had to follow is a fairly simple one: Give him the ball and his left foot will do the rest.
So when the Real Madrid star stepped onto the pitch on Saturday with Wales for the first time at the European Championship, his towering presence begged a question: Is there such a thing in football as a one-man team?
The answer, Wales proved in its 2-1 opening-match victory against Slovakia in which Bale scored but didn't hit the winner, is `No.'
Well, kind of.
The question of whether the success of a team of 11 players can hinge solely on the feats of one man is a valid one. Bale's standout talents in the Wales squad of players from the first, second and third tiers of English football make the debate worthy. The world-record 100 million euros (then worth $132 million) that Real Madrid reportedly paid for Bale in 2013 - a fee that would stretch higher than the second floor of the Eiffel Tower if stacked in a pile of 50-euro notes - is almost twice as much as other clubs paid, in total, for all of the other 10 players who stood side-by-side with Bale for the kick-off in Bordeaux.
The Welsh fans who belted out a stirring rendition of their anthem, ''Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau'' ('Land of my Fathers'), knew that they would never have gotten to taste the pleasures of southwest France without Bale's seven goals in qualifying. With winners against Andorra, Belgium and Cyprus, Bale bagged half of the 18 points that Wales needed to be among the 24 teams in France, a first appearance at a major tournament for the country of 3 million people since the World Cup of 1958.
Pre-match, Bale himself poo-pooed the idea that Wales, in essence, amounted to him and him alone. And in the 90 minutes against Slovakia, it became obvious that he was right.
The most impressive performer in a red shirt wasn't Bale but Jonathan Williams. The midfielder with a shock of blonde hair hasn't had a club career to shout about like his famous teammate who shone so brightly with Tottenham Hotspur that Real Madrid felt obliged to fork out a prince's ransom for him to play alongside Cristiano Ronaldo - another player who has lived with a ''one-man team'' label with his national side, Portugal.
Crystal Palace gave Williams his first professional contract in 2010 but since then hasn't found much use him, loaning him out three times to Ipswich Town and, last season, to Nottingham Forest and then the MK Dons in England's second-tier Championship. Injuries, including a broken leg playing for Wales' youth team, hampered his career; at just 5-feet, 6-inches (1.68 meters) tall, Williams is also on the short side for football.
But against Slovakia, Williams was a giant, seizing - as lesser-known players are often wont to do - on the major-tournament spotlight to make his mark.
In the ninth minute, it was Williams who won a free-kick in perfect territory for Bale's left foot, about 25 yards out from Matus Kozacik's goal. Hands on hips, Bale scoped the target with his pale blue eyes. His kick curled over the Slovak wall and dipped down out of Kozacik's diving reach, for Wales' first goal in a major tournament since Terry Medwin scored the winner in a 2-1 defeat of Hungary in the group stage of the 1958 World Cup.
The punishment Williams took before he was substituted in the 71st minute showed how much of a pest he was to the Slovakians. He was hacked down by Patrik Hrosovsky, who got a yellow card for that foul, and elbowed and shoulder-barged by Martin Skrtel.
And Bale played no part in Wales' late winner.
Big-bearded substitute Joe Ledley, who broke his leg in May playing for Crystal Palace, sliced through the Slovak lines with a pass to Aaron Ramsey. The Arsenal midfielder looked like he might trip over his own feet but managed to flick the ball to another substitute, Hal Robson-Kanu. The striker's contract with Reading expired this summer. His scuffed left-footed goal in the 81st minute won't hurt his prospects of finding another club.
So, no, Wales isn't a one-man team.
But it is a team very lucky to have one man in particular.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester