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Wales's Gareth Bale closing on 50 caps

With Gareth Bale set to win his 50th Wales cap against Belgium on Friday, correspondent Mark Pitman looks at an international career that began with a record and keeps getting better.

Gareth Bale's Wales career ©Getty Images

"I love playing for Wales and representing my country," said Gareth Bale as he mused on his forthcoming 50th cap. "For me, it's the ultimate honour."

It is a passion reflected in the Real Madrid CF forward's international displays, with four goals from five games as unbeaten Wales sit level on points with UEFA EURO 2016 Group B leaders Belgium ahead of their Cardiff showdown on Friday. Announcing his squad, manager Chris Coleman said of Bale: "His performances have been outstanding. He's a credit. You see his reactions in the game and what it means to him."

Bale's national-team career began on 27 May 2006 when he became the youngest player to represent Wales. John Toshack introduced him as a substitute during a 2-1 friendly defeat of Trinidad and Tobago in Austria at the age of 16 years and 315 days. Bale showed signs of what fans could later expect by setting up Robert Earnshaw's winning goal.

"It's a great feeling to have an assist on my debut," said a delighted Bale. "It's been a new experience for me, being around all the big players. It feels like a dream come true."

Establishing himself in the first XI at the tender age of 17, Bale was one of a number of players from the current generation fast-tracked through the Welsh football pathway. Brian Flynn was intermediate team manager as the prodigious talent emerged, and had no doubt what his professional future would bring.

Bale (centre) celebrates a 2007 goal with Giggs (right)
Bale (centre) celebrates a 2007 goal with Giggs (right)©Getty Images

"The way he has burst on the scene and made such an amazing impact doesn't surprise me in the slightest," said Flynn in 2007. "We saw it with Ryan [Giggs] 15 years ago. We're seeing it with Gareth today."

On 7 October 2006, Bale scored his first international goal with what has become a trademark free-kick against Slovakia in UEFA EURO 2008 qualifying to set another record (which he still holds) as Wales's youngest marksman at 17 years and 35 days. Now with a return of 16 goals from 49 appearances, Bale is only a dozen strikes short of Ian Rush's Welsh-best total of 28.

"Gareth can definitely break it," pronounced Coleman last October. "He is young enough to do it and he will play enough games to do it. He will because he's one of the best players in the world who can score or create a goal out of nothing."

Coleman added recently: "For every player that comes into the team he is an inspiration. We know what he can give to us and he is the kind of guy that will never fail you."

Nine years have passed since Bale claimed his first cap, but as with many of his talented Welsh predecessors, qualification for a major tournament has so far eluded him. However, there is a new-found confidence and belief surrounding football in Wales, and the inspiration behind it is more than deserving of the praise directed at him ever since he started breaking records in 2006.