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Bale, Hamsik draw swords for Euro 2016 duel

10 June 2016, 12:48

Bordeaux - Distinctive haircut? Check. Multiple national player of the year awards? Check. 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 in Saturday's Euro 2016 opener in Bordeaux.

The two players - topknot-sporting Bale, 26, and mohican-crested Hamsik, 28 - inspired their respective countries to qualify for a European Championship finals 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 €100m ($113.6 million) -- the fee it cost Real Madrid to sign him - Hamsik was "priceless".

Two years later he was the Madrid coach and had revised his evaluation of Bale sufficiently to put the Welshman at the forefront of his plans, granting him a central role that briefly threatened to put even Cristiano Ronaldo in the shade.

Saturday'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 goal-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.

"To have a chance to play at such a young age was a little bit of a surprise, I suppose, but something I really wanted to do," Bale told the UEFA website this week.

"It was an unforgettable experience. Now I'm trying to do my best for Wales.

"I obviously understand that I am a role model for young people, but I try to take it in my stride, act normally, as I am."


Elected Welsh Player of the Year a record five times, Bale scored seven and created two of the 11 goals that Chris Coleman's Wales registered in their historic qualifying campaign, netting vital winners against Andorra, Belgium and Cyprus.

His entrance as a substitute could not prevent Wales from losing 3-0 to Sweden in their final warm-up game, but 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 began his love affair with 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 spirit, does not possess Bale's awesome physical attributes, but his eye for goal is every bit as keen and with 18 goals, he is Slovakia's third-highest all-time scorer.

A five-time Slovakian Player of the Year - also a record - 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 world champions Germany, sparking their comeback with a sumptuous 25-yard equaliser.

"First of all, he's our team leader," manager Kozak told Sky Sports ahead of the tournament.

"He's an established footballer, playing for a big Italian club and a great person to have around the squad.

"He loves to represent his country, which is obviously important. Unquestionably, he's a player of the highest quality."

When referee Svein Oddvar Moen's whistle sounds at Stadium Bordeaux, there will be a world-class player on both sides of the halfway line.



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