BAKU: Wales and Gareth Bale head into their second straight European Championship with aspirations kept in check after their surprising run to the semifinals in 2016.
Five years later Bale will captain his country having taken over from the emblematic Ashley Williams who wore the armband five years ago in the run to the last four and defeat to eventual winners Portugal.
Wales start their campaign against Switzerland on Saturday in Baku.
“It’s going to be a massive honor to lead your country out in a major tournament. It’s going to be one of the highlights of my career,” Bale, a four-time Champions League winner with Real Madrid, said.
“I’m looking forward and I’m excited. The team talk will come naturally to me in the huddle tomorrow,” he said.
Switzerland have a more consistent past in reaching finals but have failed to get further than the last 16 in their previous three tournaments — the 2014 and 2018 World Cups and Euro 2016.
“We have high expectations from ourselves and also from our public,” captain Granit Xhaka said.
“We proved we can make it, this time we don’t want to talk, we want to do it, and achieve it,” he added.
The pair will compete with Italy and Turkey for a place in the last 16, in just their third appearance at a major tournament.
“We know the qualities of Italy, being such a big nation with such a history. Switzerland are a top 10 ranking team in the world,” Bale said.
“Turkey have proven over the last 12 months because they’ve beaten some big teams as well.
“It’s difficult to say who the favorite is. I don’t think one stands out,” he added.
Recently Bale has found it difficult scoring for his country, who are 17th in the FIFA rankings, and is without an international goal since October 2019.
Despite his barren run of 11 matches in the red shirt he finished the club season with six goals in as many Premier League games while on loan at Tottenham from Real Madrid.
“I feel good, very sharp, I feel ready to go,” he said.
“I scored quite a few goals in the last three to four months of the season and I felt the performances were getting better and better each time.
“I’ve timed my fitness to perfection hopefully and I can continue that in the tournament,” he added.
This weekend, Xhaka will face former Arsenal teammate Aaron Ramsey, who left the Emirates Stadium for Juventus in 2019.
“I don’t see too much danger on Saturday. If we focus and play as we want then there’s no danger,” Xhaka said.
“We have huge respect for Wales. A lot of their players play abroad, in the Premier League, who I have played alongside like Aaron Ramsey, who is a very skillful player,” he added.