CARDIFF (AFP) - Gareth Bale is the key to Wales' Euro 2016 hopes, says Welsh legend Ian Rush, as Chris Coleman's dragons prepare for a first appearance at a major tournament for 58 years. Wales have many talented footballers.
But legends such as John Charles, John Toshack, Ian Rush, Mark Hughes and Ryan Giggs were all world-class competitors who never played at a major finals in the red shirt. Now Welsh fans have been planning their trips to France since last October when Wales confirmed their Euro 2016 place behind Belgium in their qualifying group.
Real Madrid's Bale - the world's most expensive player at about 100 million euros (S$154 million) - is the star of the squad.
The 26-year-old netted seven of Wales' 11 goals in their 10 qualifying games and Rush told AFP keeping the winger fit is key to Wales' chances at the tournament.
"He's the most expensive player in the world, who can win you games, and he's virtually got Wales to the Euros," Rush said. "I think it's very important to have Gareth Bale fit and well. If we can do that, anything can happen."
Wales manager Chris Coleman insists his squad, who he describes as 'talented, hard-working and organised', is more than just Bale, with Arsenal's Aaron Ramsey a key figure in midfield and captain Ashley Williams leading the defence.
"You need players of Gareth's ability if you are going to go that step further," Coleman told AFP. "But it's not just about Gareth.
"He scored seven goals for us in the qualifiers, but we only conceded four goals, two of which came in one game, so while we are strong at one end of the pitch, we're also strong at the other."
Coleman took charge of Wales in 2012, following the tragic suicide of predecessor Gary Speed, and has a contract until the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Apart from Bale, 12 of Coleman's 23-man squad play for Premier League clubs and the current group has been dubbed the 'golden generation'.
The Welsh open their Group B campaign against Slovakia, also making their debut at a European Championhip finals, in Bordeaux on June 11, then face England five days later in Lens before finishing against Russia on June 20.
The squad has captured the imagination of Wales fans by finally qualifying for France, but what made the difference this time around?
"The manager," said Coleman with irony and a smile. "You need a litle bit of luck, which we had, but the players earned it. "When we needed results in big games, we got them and were able to go that one step further than some of the best teams who have gone before us. "That speaks volumes for the players. This group has not only the talent, but also the right mentality to play top-level international football. That's why they have been able to make the difference."
Welsh fans have endured near-misses down the years since Wales played at the 1958 World Cup in Sweden, losing 1-0 to eventual winners Brazil in the quarter finals. Scotland went to the 1978 World Cup in Argentina at Wales' expense, helped by a dubious penalty involving Joe Jordan's hand in a key qualifier.
Then the Welsh only missed going to Spain '82 on goal difference. A 2-1 home defeat to Romania in November 1993 in their final qualifying game cost the Wales team, containing legends Rush and Hughes, a place at the 1994 World Cup, when Paul Bodin's penalty kick hit the crossbar.
They lost a Euro 2004 play-off against Russia, when a 1-0 defeat in Cardiff followed a goalless draw in Moscow, leaving Welsh fans in despair. Now the wait is over with Welsh rockers The Manic Street Preachers having penned the principality's official Euro 2016 song 'Together Stronger (C'mon Wales)'.
"It's been a long time coming, I think there is a great anticipation in the whole country after Wales qualified," said Rush. "It's always been a case of 'so near, so far' and to qualify will hopefully mean a new era for Wales."
The 54-year-old Liverpool legend, who scored 28 goals in 73 appearances for Wales over 16 years, said the Welsh squad must look beyond Euro 2016 and target a place at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
"We don't want to qualify, but then not do so again for another 10 years," said Rush. "We we need to take it to the next level and be looking to qualify for the World Cup. That's what we need in Wales now."