Euro 2016: Wales' 'unstoppable' Gareth Bale can heal a nation

By Rob PhillipsBBC Wales football correspondent
Wales are top of Group B after wins against Andorra and Cyprus and a draw with Bosnia-Hercegovina
Euro 2016 qualifying: Belgium v Wales
Venue: King Baudouin Stadium, Brussels Date: Sunday, 16 November Kick-off: 17:00 GMT
Coverage: Live commentary on BBC Radio Wales, Radio Cymru & online

The truth is agonising, but unavoidable. Wales have not qualified for the finals of a major tournament since the World Cup of 1958.

And as if there is not enough expected of the most expensive footballer on the planet - he must now show a nation his healing powers.

Along with the rest of Chris Coleman's squad, is Gareth Bale able to assuage Welsh fans' ache to make France for Euro 2016?

The class of 1976 - which included Terry Yorath, John Toshack and Leighton James - actually reached the quarter-finals of the European Championship. But the format was different, the finals were not held on a tournament basis.

So, for more than 50 years, the Welsh experience has generally involved occasional near misses and too many false dawns.

Nathan Blake was part of the last, bitter disappointment. Wales made the play-offs for the Euro 2004 finals but lost 1-0 to Russia over two legs - having secured a goalless away draw in the first tie.

Blake recalls: "At that point we were having 72,000 in the Millennium Stadium. The country was aching for it. After that it fell off so quickly because people were devastated we did not get there."

Nathan Blake and Gary Speed
Nathan Blake and Gary Speed walk through Moscow's Red Square in November 2003

Twenty four teams will make the finals in France and Wales play Belgium in Brussels on Sunday sitting on top of Euro 2016 Group B.

Seven points from their opening three games represents their best tournament start for 14 years - since Mark Hughes's side began their 2004 qualifying campaign with four consecutive victories, including a famous win over Italy.

Bale, Aaron Ramsey, Ashley Williams and Joe Allen represent a solid spine of a team which boasts plenty of experience.

Indeed eight of Coleman's 24-man squad have made more than 40 international appearances. Bale is set for his 48th Wales appearance in Brussels - and he is only 25.

Bale, Chris Gunter and Joe Ledley (amongst others) can realistically consider Neville Southall's all-time record of 92 caps - or at least the late Gary Speed's outfield record of 85 caps - to be within their sights.

Players in Wales squad with more than 40 caps
NameAgeInternational appearances
Wayne Hennessey2746
James Collins3144
Danny Gabbidon3549
Chris Gunter2556
Sam Ricketts3352
Ashley Williams3048
Joe Ledley2754
Gareth Bale2547

John Toshack's reign in charge of Wales may be maligned, but he blooded almost half of the current squad when they were barely out of nappies in football terms.

Toshack - with the help of Brian Flynn - always felt his approach would one day bear fruit. Is now the time?

History demands caution. Yet, Blake sees more than just football progress.

"I would say this is the first time in a while you actually hear the players talking about having to qualify. The need is so desperate and there's a belief they will qualify," he said.

"I've heard it from Ashley Williams, from Bale, from Ramsey. They all seem to be on the same path.

"And they have been together for a long while, they have been nurtured and grown together."

Wales' remaining Euro 2016 qualifiers
16 Nov 2014: Belgium (a)6 Sep 2015: Israel (h)
28 Mar 2015: Israel (a)10 Oct 2015: Bosnia-Hercegovina (a)
12 Jun 2015: Belgium (h)13 Oct 2015: Andorra (h)
3 Sep 2015: Cyprus (a)

That belief appears to be shared by the long-suffering followers. Wales will have a support of nearly 2,500 inside the King Baudouin Stadium - and could have sold more.

That will represent the biggest travelling support for a Wales football squad on the continent since Toshack's side went to Austria in 2005.

The fans will travel bolstered by memories of a heroic 1-1 draw achieved by an injury-ravaged Wales squad in Brussels in October and a relatively clean bill of health this time.

Belgium have an array of talent from goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois through to Chelsea team-mate Eden Hazard probing at the other end. They reached last summer's World Cup quarter-finals and stand at a historic high of fourth in the world rankings.

But Wales have Bale. Blake said: "We have a player who is capable of going to Belgium and with two or three runs can get two or three goals. He can have that kind of night where he is unstoppable.

"When you have a player like that in your team I don't think anyone can write you off."

Brussels will not decide Wales' fate. But it may provide more evidence a remedy could be in the offing for a condition which has for too long afflicted Wales' players and their long-suffering followers.