During his difficult final years at Real Madrid, Gareth Bale only truly found happiness on a soccer field when he linked up with Wales for matches with his national team.
Now, after moving to the United States, he is feeling the love at club level, too.
Bale joined Los Angeles FC in July after his contract at Madrid expired and has been playing regularly for one of Major League Soccer’s top teams, albeit mostly as a substitute as he builds up his fitness after barely getting any game time in his final season in Spain.
The ultimate goal for Bale is to be in peak condition for Nov. 21 — when Wales plays the United States in their opening group game at the World Cup in Qatar. It marks the first World Cup for the Welsh since 1958 and, according to Bale, the pinnacle of a career that has seen him win Champions League titles at Madrid as the world’s most expensive player.
Ultimately, Bale chose to move to L.A. to get the most out of the final years of his career — for his club team and his national team — and he thinks he made the right choice.
“I can’t ask for any more,” Bale said at Wales’ training base on Wednesday, when asked how he had settled in California. “They made me feel at home straight away. I’m getting good vibes from my team in the MLS and hopefully that will give me more confidence playing for Wales.”
Bale was all smiles — as usual — when he joined up with the Wales squad on Tuesday after flying in from Los Angeles, where his family has moved and feels settled.
Also significant is the fact that Bale feels fitter and sharper than he has for a long time. He is following a personalized fitness program, gradually loading his training, and has started two of LAFC’s last six games after being a substitute for the first five.
Bale still hasn’t completed 90 minutes for his new team but that is more likely to happen when LAFC enter the playoffs, which it will go into as the Western Conference’s leading team.
“Any player will tell you, playing games and being fully fit, match-fit, is the most important thing and makes you feel better, more sharper on the pitch,” Bale said. “The last few years, I have had to come in (to the Wales camp) and find something and dig deep and find my fitness.
“I have obviously played more games, more training, going into these games and it’s more ideal to be playing as much as you can so you can perform better for Wales.”
Wales coach Rob Page is unsure how much he will use Bale for the upcoming Nations League group games against Belgium and Poland, insisting the main thing is keeping his star player in the best shape possible heading into the World Cup.
Page is in no doubt that moving to Los Angeles has energized Bale.
“It’s oozing out of him, isn’t it?” Page said. “You can see it has been the right move for him and his family. Whether it’s the lifestyle, the training — you see the welcome he got from the (LAFC) players. You talk about this environment (at Wales); it seems he has got that in the changing room in LA, too.
“We have had him in camp before and he has been great for us and won us games without playing any minutes at club level. Any minutes we can get out of him is a bonus. I am pleased — it is the best outcome, for me.”
Bale said that Wales-U.S. game on Nov. 21 is a regular topic of conversation in the LAFC locker room.
“We have a bit of banter, with a few of the players and coaching staff,” he said. “It’s something we joke about now and again.
“Ultimately, we know when it comes to crunch time, it will be a difficult game for both teams and one we are all looking forward to.”
More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
Steve Douglas, The Associated Press