Gareth Bale, arguably Wales’ greatest, departs – the day his country dreaded

It was a moment Welsh football had been dreading for what felt like an age, a long-looming inevitability that a nation had put to the back of its mind for fear that it might actually become true.

And yet when it finally arrived, Gareth Bale’s announcement of his retirement still came as a shock of seismic proportions. This was a day Wales could see coming – just not this soon.

Speculation regarding Bale’s future had raged for years, dominating the final stages of his glittering career at Real Madrid and following him at the past two major tournaments with Wales.

Optimists clung to the fact that he had departed the World Cup with the vow that he would “keep going as long as I can and as long as I’m wanted”. Some dreamed that he might even have carried on forever; there were times when he did seem immortal.

But there is no escaping time. While 33 might be a relatively young age to retire, Bale had been showing signs of slowing as his body bore the toll of a superhuman 17-year career.

Logic suggested this day would come but, then again, Bale had kept defying logic to conjure moments of magic even as he appeared to be losing some of his powers of old.

His retirement marks the end not only for arguably the finest player Wales has ever produced, but also the beginning of the end for the greatest era in the country’s footballing history.

Bale elevated Wales to new heights, embodying his nation’s rise from lowly underachievers to major tournament regulars.

In doing so, he transcended his sport, a phenomenal athlete whose global renown brought Wales to the world’s attention.

To quantify such an impact is a near-impossible task and, although boiling Bale’s career down to numbers and achievements is reductive, they bear repeating.

Real Madrid made him the world’s most expensive footballer when they bought him from Tottenham for £85m in 2013 and, during nine years in Spain, he scored more than 100 goals on his way to helping Real win a staggering five Champions League and three La Liga titles.

His trophy cabinet also includes a plethora of individual accolades, such as two PFA Player of the Year awards and the Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year.

Then there is Bale’s peerless Wales career, ending as his country’s all-time leading male scorer with 41 goals from 111 appearances, another national men’s record.

Impressive as all those feats are, though, they are only part of Bale’s story. You had to watch him in action to truly appreciate his brilliance.

Bale was more than the leading character in a film of his blockbuster career; he was the man who kept writing his own barely plausible scripts and, most stunningly of all, kept bringing them to life with displays of otherworldly powers.

To rewatch showreels of his goals for Tottenham is to be mesmerised by a heady cocktail of supreme athleticism, mazy dribbling and outlandish long-distance shooting.

At Real Madrid, his goals were as awe-inspiring as they were important, from the audacious run from his own half in the 2014 Copa del Rey final win over Barcelona to the jaw-dropping overhead kick against Liverpool that helped clinch victory in the 2018 Champions League final, one of the greatest goals in the competition’s history.

And yet for all the gilded splendour of his club accomplishments, Bale was arguably at his most heroic when playing for Wales.

Having made his debut as a 16-year-old in 2006, Bale endured a testing introduction to international football as Wales sat outside the top 100 in the world rankings as recently as 2011.

But as the figurehead for his country’s golden generation, alongside the likes of Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen, Bale took Wales to stratospheric new heights.

He was their top scorer in qualifying for Euro 2016 – ending a 58-year absence from major tournaments – and produced a series of stellar displays in France as Wales soared to an historic first semi-final.

After captaining Wales to qualification for the next European Championship – where they again reached the knockout stages – Bale then led his country to their holy grail, a first World Cup since 1958.

His evolution as a player during this period illustrated what a singular and transformational talent Bale was.

Whereas his fearsome pace and direct running tormented opponents on the way to Euro 2016, Bale had to adjust to life without those physical weapons six years later, but still possessed the unique quality required to score all three of Wales’ goals as they defeated Austria and Ukraine to finally qualify for the World Cup.

As disappointing as Wales were in exiting last year’s tournament at the group stage, it was fitting that Bale’s final goal for his country would prove to be Wales’ first at a World Cup since 1958.

Like his team-mates, coaches and fans, Bale was left deflated by Wales’ performances in Qatar and, as he waved goodbye to the supporters after the defeat against England, there was a sense that a more final farewell was on the horizon.

As time passes, that despair will dissipate. Bale can look back with pride at the integral role he played in taking Wales to a first World Cup for 64 years.

The same applies to his time at Real Madrid. A rancorous end will fade from memory when he reflects on a trophy-laden nine years in Spain which made him the most successful British footballing export of all time.

More important to Bale, though, will be his legacy with Wales.

Club football might be the sport’s dominant form but, to Bale, there was nothing better than representing his country.

After scoring his spectacular overhead kick in Real Madrid’s Champions League final win over Liverpool in 2018, his first thought after the final whistle was to grab the Welsh flag and drape it around his shoulders as he walked around the pitch for a lap of honour.

A year later, having faced criticism from fans and media in Spain for a perceived lack of commitment as he struggled with injuries, Bale further incurred their wrath by saying: “I definitely have a bit more excitement playing for Wales.”

That was nothing compared to the fury in Madrid when, after sealing qualification for Euro 2020, Bale was pictured laughing next to his Wales team-mates who were holding a banner which read: “Wales. Golf. Madrid. In that order.”

It was effectively the end of his increasingly fraught relationship with Real but, for Wales fans, it only increased the appeal of their hero, an unapologetic champion of Wales.

Few people, sporting or otherwise, have done more to raise Wales’ profile across the world than Bale.

As he announced his retirement on Monday, it was telling that Bale wrote a separate message for his country.

“I shared a dressing room with boys that became brothers and backroom staff that became family,” he said.

“I played for the most incredible managers and felt the undying support and love from the most dedicated fans in the world. Thank you to every one of you for being on this journey with me.

“So for now I am stepping back but not away from the team that lives in me and runs through my veins after all the dragon on my shirt is all I need.”

There are players who can inspire teams, others who can carry them to glory and rarer still are those who become synonymous with their clubs or countries.

Few can claim to define a nation for an entire generation.

But Bale can.

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