EURO 2016

Bale, Hamsik to get in each other's hair

Wales' Gareth Bale (left) and Slovakia's Marek Hamsik are their countries' key players in today's Group B opening match.Both were the top scorers in their countries' respective Euro qualifying campaigns and will be seeking to continue their scoring s
Wales' Gareth Bale (above) and Slovakia's Marek Hamsik are their countries' key players in today's Group B opening match.Both were the top scorers in their countries' respective Euro qualifying campaigns and will be seeking to continue their scoring streaks. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Wales' Gareth Bale (left) and Slovakia's Marek Hamsik are their countries' key players in today's Group B opening match.Both were the top scorers in their countries' respective Euro qualifying campaigns and will be seeking to continue their scoring s
Wales' Gareth Bale and Slovakia's Marek Hamsik (above) are their countries' key players in today's Group B opening match.Both were the top scorers in their countries' respective Euro qualifying campaigns and will be seeking to continue their scoring streaks. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Welsh wizard and Slovak soldier draw swords to lead their nations in today's clash

GROUP B

Wales v Slovakia

Singtel TV Ch142 & StarHub Ch220, 11.50pm

BORDEAUX • Distinctive haircut? Check.

Multiple national Player of the Year awards? Check.

  • Special deal for Singtel customers

    The Euro 2016 and Copa America Centenario channels (Ch141/142) will be available free to Singtel TV customers who renew or sign up for their Trio, Variety or Value packs for 24 months from today.

    They can also watch matches from the two tournaments for free on the Singtel TV GO app. Match fixtures, video highlights, football news and past matches will also be accessible via the app.

    All Singaporeans will have access to watch one of the Euro 2016 semi-finals as well as the final on the GO app for free.

Feared attacker with a vicious shot and the freedom to roam all over the pitch? Check, check, check.

Gareth Bale and Marek Hamsik would be able to reflect upon the many things they have in common, were they not lining up against each other for Wales and Slovakia today.

The two players - topknot-sporting Bale, 26, and mohican-crested Hamsik, 28 - inspired their respective countries to qualify for a European Championship for the first time and the outcome of the match may boil down to which of the two players comes out on top.

Rafael Benitez, the only man to have coached both players, remarked during his time at Napoli that if Bale was worth €100 million (S$153 million) - what he cost Real Madrid - Hamsik was "priceless".

Two years later, he was the Real coach and had revised his evaluation of Bale sufficiently to put the Welshman at the forefront of his plans, granting him a central role.

Tonight's game brings Bale's international career full circle. It was against Slovakia that he scored his first Wales goal - an arcing free kick in an otherwise bleak 5-1 mauling in Cardiff in October 2006 that made him, at 17 years and 35 days, his country's youngest scorer.

Back then he was a floppy-haired left-back learning his trade with Southampton, but after blossoming into a free-scoring attacker at Tottenham Hotspur, his move to Madrid turned him into a two-time Champions League winner and global star.

"It has been a bit surreal being here, especially with Wales having not been there so long," Bale said on Thursday. "Whenever there was a major championship on, I would be sat at home, watching on TV, so to be involved is amazing."

He scored seven and created two of the 11 goals that Wales registered in their historic qualifying campaign.

With Bale and his 19 international goals in the team, Welsh fans believe that anything is possible.

Similarly precocious, Hamsik moved to Italy to join Brescia from Slovan Bratislava aged 17 in 2004 and moved to Napoli three years later. He has helped the southern Italian side to two Coppa Italia triumphs and, unlike Bale, has already graced a major tournament, starring as Slovakia reached the last 16 at the 2010 World Cup.

The Napoli captain, a snarling playmaker with a warrior's spirit, does not possess Bale's speed and stamina, but his eye for goal is every bit as keen and with 18 goals, he is Slovakia's third-highest all-time scorer.

He top-scored for his country in qualifying with five goals and recently inspired Jan Kozak's side to a 3-1 win away to Germany.

"First of all, he's our team leader," said manager Kozak. "He's an established footballer, playing for a big Italian club and a great person to have around the squad.

"Unquestionably, he's a player of the highest quality."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 11, 2016, with the headline 'Bale, Hamsik to get in each other's hair'. Print Edition | Subscribe