Gareth Bale hopes Wales can draw on past heartbreak to reach World Cup 2022

Gareth Bale has said the heartbreak of near-misses drives him on in his determination to lead Wales to a first World Cup in more than 60 years as he prepares to reach 100 caps. Bale said the hurt of being edged out by the Republic of Ireland in a game that denied them a play-off spot four years ago would fuel them when they prepare for a March semi-final play-off to qualify for Qatar 2022. Wales are guaranteed a play-off, but must finish second in Group E to earn a home draw.

Bale is set to start against Belarus in Cardiff on Saturday and victory plus at least a point against Belgium, the group leaders, on Tuesday would secure second spot. Bale has worked hard to be available after suffering a grade-four hamstring tear in September, with the interim Wales manager, Robert Page, saying the Real Madrid forward is “a couple of weeks ahead of schedule … because he has pushed himself”. Bale will become the second Welshman, after Chris Gunter, to reach a century of caps and the 32-year-old said it would be an incredible occasion.

At the same time, Bale said he would not allow emotion to get in the way of what he described as a “must-win game” if Wales are to give themselves the best chance of reaching a World Cup for the first time since 1958. “The way you learn is by heartbreak in football and by things you haven’t achieved,” he said.

“The World Cup is top of everyone’s list. We have had down moments like against Ireland [in 2017, when they lost their final Group D qualifier 1-0 in Cardiff] and other situations so hopefully we can lean on that experience and that hurt to drive us on further and have that bit more knowhow on how to do things. We’ll definitely be diving back into a bit of experience to try and help us and hopefully the youngsters can give us that little advantage.”

In September Bale’s first competitive hat-trick for his country helped Wales to a last-minute comeback battling victory over Belarus, but he missed the October double-header through injury. “I still feel like a little kid when I am not playing now watching Wales,” he said. “I have worked as hard as ever to try to get back. In terms of my fitness I am as fit as I can be. I need to be wary that I have not played for two months. But, like I always do no matter, when I go on the pitch I will give 100%.”

Bale said his winner against Belgium on his 50th cap was among his favourite moments in a Wales shirt. “When a fan plays for your own national team you bring that passion with you. It is hard to describe the feeling of playing for Wales. It is such a special country. It’s such a special bond between the players, the staff, the fans, and even the media are a little bit nicer to us … it is just a special country to be a part of. I’m very proud and honoured to be a Welshman.”

This week Bale’s best friend in the squad, Wayne Hennessey, said they were plotting a golf-related gift for reaching a century. In March, the Football Association of Wales presented Gunter with an oil painting by his former Wales teammate Owain Fon Williams of the iconic chin-up gesture he made following defeat by England at Euro 2016. “I don’t know of any gifts,” said Bale. Asked what would be the best gift, he replied: “I want them to give me three points! That would be the perfect gift because we need them.”

Page also paid tribute to Bale as the best Welsh footballer of all time. “I think a lot of boys and girls will look up to him, how he lives his life as well as what he does on the football pitch,” Page said. “The way he takes care of himself now, I think he’s gone to another level with that. He has been an inspiration to a lot of young children over the years. He leads by example.”