If this proves Gareth Bale’s swansong for Wales there will surely be regrets regarding how he faded after a silky start. The 31-year-old threatened to initially prise Denmark open via the galloping runs that made his name. But no.
Instead, Bale and Wales are out of the tournament on a night that belonged to Kasper Dolberg and a Danish team that, after Christian Eriksen’s cardiac arrest, are refusing to accept they cannot write the fairytale of a second continental championship at Euro 2020 in his honour.
When Dolberg unfurled a 20-yard peach of an opener he stood still to take the acclaim of Johan Cruyff Arena, as delirious Danish fans hurled plastic cups, raining lager down from the stands, and Kasper Hjulmand did a Tarzan chest‑thump to celebrate his side doing what virtually all non-Wales followers wished to see.
When Dolberg scored a second he allowed himself a pirouette, perhaps sensing that this last-16 tie was all but over and the Danish rollercoaster would continue to a quarter-final next Saturday against the Netherlands or the Czech Republic.
The 23-year-old’s first came on 26 minutes and was a body-blow; the next arrived 180 seconds into the second half and was a haymaker from which Wales failed to recover.
The truth was that after a bright start Robert Page’s team had, like their totem Bale, fallen away, and at the interval the manager embarked on the most vital half-time chat of his career. It was difficult: Wales were playing against Denmark and fighting a weight of sentiment from those around the globe urging them on. With no Welsh fans allowed into the Netherlands, the nation of the red dragon was outnumbered inside the stadium, too. Uefa had “Eriksen 10” written on the giant Denmark shirt as part of the pre‑match show and Bale presented his counterpart, Simon Kjær, with a framed top that read: “Christian, brysia wella” – “Christian, get well soon”.
Page and Bale had each trotted out the line about it being another match, to indicate how the pro‑Danish feeling would be blocked out. Yet for theory to become practice Bale, Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen, Ben Davies and Daniel James, as the high-end talent, would have to be the contest’s prime factors. They were not.
Bale had been stuck on a national record 33 goals from his previous 95 caps since October 2019, 14 games ago. Finishing was a team-wide issue as only Keiffer Moore, Ramsey and Connor Roberts had breached the net (once each) in group matches that yielded a solitary victory, against Turkey. Two Bale sighters suggested he might end the drought and just as encouraging was how the boos meeting any Welsh possession were silenced by early dominance.
At this juncture Bale and Ramsey were the authors of authoritative attack patterns that stretched their opponents. The Danes, though, knew that Wales might be hurt at the back, where a front trident of Dolberg, Mikkel Damsgaard and Martin Braithwaite were able to nip through gaps left by the sluggish Chris Mepham and Joe Rodon.
This is a venue Eriksen graced for three years (2010-13) in Ajax colours so Dolberg twice beating Danny Ward here provided further resonance, and as the Nice striker also formerly played for the club it felt even more apt.
Dolberg’s double meant it was forgotten how Hjulmand had not chosen the one player from either nation who had two goals in the group phase – Yussuf Poulsen, perhaps injured, did not even make the match-day squad. When Dolberg wandered off with 20 minutes left, he received a deserved ovation.
As the seconds ebbed away Bale hacked wildly at Joakim Mæhle: Danish pressure ensued via the resulting free-kick, Braithwaite hitting a post, before Mæhle made it 3-0 and Harry Wilson was sent off. The passage was the match in microcosm: frustration, calamity for Wales; and undoubted, deserved ascendancy for the Danes.
Now, they roll on – who knows when the Eriksen-fuelled emotion might cease to inspire Hjulmand’s impressive squad, for whom Braithwaite completed the rout.
Wales, though, are out, and who knows what is next for Bale. In the buildup he offered a non-denial when quizzed if this tourney may be the close of his international career. When asked again about this post-match he walked out of the BBC interview. This refusal to front up before a microphone sadly mirrored his inability to seize control on the pitch.