LONDON — There was a priceless moment when Gareth Bale showed his swiftness, and his opponents’ lack of it, as Wales advanced in the European Championships and Russia was eliminated.
Bale’s thrilling athleticism and a burst of speed propelled him between Sergei Ignashevich and Igor Smolnikov as if the two experienced Russian defenders were standing still. A third defender, Denis Glushakov, was two yards away, while a fourth was a blur in the background.
That moment during Wales’s 3-0 Group B victory over Russia on Monday made a mockery of the fact that Russia, with 143 million people, dwarfs Wales, which has just over three million.
Here was a reminder that if one team is fit and motivated and the other barely shows up on the field, anything is possible in sports. Russia has departed the Euros, leaving behind only the memories of the extreme violence by some of its supporters.
Wales goes on to the second round of a major soccer tournament for only the second time in its history. Indeed, there is a connection between this year’s team and the Wales team that reached the quarterfinals of the 1958 World Cup in Sweden.
Then, as now, a truly exceptional player led the Welsh side. Nearly six decades ago, that man was John Charles, a player of huge power but quite modest in his temperament — as Bale is today.
Big John would never have worn his hair in a topknot the way Bale does. But Charles was a player who could carry a team, and Bale has done that at this European Championship.
Charles was the only Wales player of his time to play abroad, with Juventus in Italy. At 6-foot-2, Charles was known as the Gentle Giant and could play center forward or center half with equal effectiveness. He scored 108 goals in his 155 games in Serie A, the most defensive league in the world at that time.
Bale doesn’t play central defense. But he does play abroad with Real Madrid, where he scores from either wing or straight down the middle on a club that has won the Champions League twice since Bale joined in 2013.
In his heart of hearts, Bale wanted to be a part of something significant for Wales. “We knew everything was on this game,” he said on television after the final whistle in Toulouse, France, on Monday. “We said to each other we wanted to go out there and have no regrets.”
No regrets? There are countless Welsh supporters, too young to have seen Charles, who waited all their lives for a night like this. Wales is a country that overachieves for its size when it comes to international rugby, and now it has twice climbed the mountain in soccer.
With Bale scoring in three straight Euro games (putting him in the same company as Michel Platini, Hristo Stoichkov and Ruud van Nistelrooy), it might seem that his country is overly dependent on his prowess.
Dependent, yes. Overly would be unfair to the teammates who contribute to every aspiration that Bale has.
“The performance tonight was even better than the goals,” said Wales Manager Chris Coleman. “The players were brave with the ball. They had no fear. And it’s not the end of the journey.”
Brave players like Joe Allen, who was tireless in midfield. Gifted players like Aaron Ramsey, the Arsenal midfielder who scored one goal against Russia and set up Bale for another.
And unsung fellows like Neil Taylor, a defender who did something on Monday he had never done before: Score for Wales. His goal Monday was the first in nearly seven years over all, covering more than 200 games for both club and country. It was a goal of perseverance, with Taylor shooting once and then running on to shoot again after the Russian goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev blocked the first attempt with his legs.
Poor Akinfeev, he had no defense. And poor Leonid Slutski, the former goalkeeper who was an unpaid coach at this tournament as he doubled up as manager of both C.S.K.A. Moscow, the Russian league champion, and his country’s national team.
After Russia’s elimination, Slutski gave only one answer to reporters’ questions. Russia, he said, needs to find a new head coach, and all other queries need to be directed to the federation.
Indeed, the Russian Football Union goes home to a bleak prospect. Its cash has all been spent paying off its foreign coaches, the last of whom was the Italian Fabio Capello, who could not make Russia competitive in any of the past three major tournaments.
The World Cup of 2018 is coming too fast for Russia, which will host the event. To make matters worse, it has a veteran team that has no more competitive matches for two years and has as little a chance of winning anything as its players did of catching Bale in Toulouse.
The spirit of Russian soccer is low. Its fan base has a history of violence and racial intolerance. And the question of doping, never far from any conversation where Russia is concerned, has yet to be fully examined when it comes to soccer.
It is safe to say that France breathed a collective sigh of relief when Wales finally expunged Russia from the Euros. For Wales now, the fun part is to see how far it can go. For Russia the games are over.