This is an updated version of an article originally published on November 28, 2022.
Gareth Bale’s answer at the time was brief to say the least.
“Nope,” he replied when asked whether Wales’ final World Cup group match against England in Qatar, when they were facing elimination after drawing with the United States and losing to Iran, could be his last appearance for his country.
Twenty-four hours later, after Wales were beaten 3-0 on a sobering night that saw Bale withdrawn at half-time, the message was not dissimilar. He vowed to “keep going” for as long as he was wanted.
Deep down however, some doubted whether that would really be the case.
Bale, who produced so many magical moments for Wales over the years and will rightly go down as their greatest footballer, had been a shadow of his old self at the World Cup and it was hard to see how he would find the motivation to carry on playing.
At the age of 33, the passage of time, including a difficult last couple of seasons at club level, where Bale didn’t play nearly enough football, had caught up with him. He was no longer able to perform at anywhere near his best — at one stage in his career, Bale was arguably behind only Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in the list of the game’s finest players — and, realistically, there was nothing left to achieve having got Wales to a first World Cup since 1958.
That was the theory and it’s also now the reality — confirmed in a statement Bale released on Monday, announcing his retirement from all football.
Although he achieved spectacular success at club level, where he won the Champions League five times with Real Madrid and was the most expensive footballer in the world following his £85million ($104m) move from Tottenham Hotspur to the Bernabeu in 2013, there was always something special about Bale’s relationship with his country.
“The fortune of being Welsh, and being selected to play for and captain Wales, has given me something incomparable to anything else I’ve experienced,” Bale writes in his retirement statement. “I shared a dressing room with boys that became brothers, and backroom staff that became family. I played for the most incredible managers, and felt the undying support and love from the most dedicated fans in the world.”
It was an emotional farewell and marks the end of an era for Welsh football.
The fact Bale played for his country 111 times, making him their most-capped men’s player, and scored 41 goals, surpassing the record previously held by Ian Rush, only tells part of his story — a story that will be retold in Wales for generations to come.
Viva, Gareth Bale.
If the rest of the Wales players had got their way, Bale would have quit Real Madrid long before he did, put his hand in his pocket and signed each and every one of them for Merthyr Tydfil.
“They joked during the Euros that they wanted Gareth to buy a Welsh club lower down,” Osian Roberts, the former Wales assistant manager, tells The Athletic. “It was Merthyr (who play in the seventh tier of the English league system), actually. Everyone would sign for him and take them all the way through the pyramid to the Premier League, so they could all play together every week. That’s how close they were — they didn’t want to just do it during the international breaks, they wanted to be together every day of the week.”
Chris Gunter breaks into laughter when told about Roberts’ comments.
“We would still say it now!” says Gunter, who played alongside Bale for Wales for 14 years. “We used to joke quite a lot about that. Gaz would have been the one who would have had to buy it for obvious reasons, with his salary.
“We used to say it was so easy with Wales because everybody was on the same page — there were no agendas, and that’s where it came from. And we always used to say that we wouldn’t have been a bad team either.
“But that was the sense, that if we could have stayed together in a group in a club environment, I dare say we would have enjoyed football even more than what we have now.”
Bale embodies the brotherhood — a word Roberts uses to describe the togetherness the late Gary Speed set about trying to create when he took over as manager in 2010 — at the heart of the Wales squad. His game evolved and his position changed over time, but he was always in his element playing for Wales.
“Cut him in half and dragons fall out,” Gwyn Morris, Bale’s former physical education teacher at Whitchurch High School in Cardiff, tells The Athletic. “The love that people have for Gareth when he plays… he cannot do any wrong. The fact he has so many caps for Wales just shows how dedicated he has been to representing Wales. And it’s rubbing off on a lot of players, especially the younger generation — these guys don’t miss Wales games anymore, they don’t pick and choose, they want to be in camp.”
When Bale spoke during the 2016 European Championship about Wales footballers having more pride and passion than their England counterparts prior to the group game between the two sides, he had a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye. It felt mischievous and provocative. But, make no mistake, Bale was deadly serious.
His connection with his country is deep and emotive, and it is easy to picture the scene that his agent Jonathan Barnett described when he first got together with Bale at the age of 15 and talked about whether the teenager was going to play for England, where one of his grandparents was born, or Wales. “I nearly got my head bitten off by his dad, who is fanatically Welsh, and his mum,” Barnett said.
Wales meant everything to Bale — more than golf or Real Madrid ever did (more about that later) — and that goes some way to explaining why leading his country in Qatar, the nation’s first appearance at a World Cup in 64 years, was such a significant moment for him, even if the storyline didn’t go to plan.
“It’s what’s been driving him to keep playing,” David Vaughan, the player Bale replaced when he made his international debut as a 16-year-old in 2006, told The Athletic before the World Cup. “I’m not saying he’s not giving his all for where he is at the moment (Los Angeles FC in MLS, who he helped win the league title earlier this month). But Wales is his passion and motivation, for sure.”
Vaughan turned out to be spot on in that respect.
Despite Bale’s success at club level over the years, there was always a feeling that playing for Wales gave him the most enjoyment. Perhaps more fulfilment, too, bearing in mind how long Welsh football had spent in the wilderness.
But maybe playing for Wales was good for Bale, too, especially when his relationship with Real Madrid turned sour. He often looked liberated when he returned home and pulled on that red shirt.
“You would probably say that it was a bit of a release for him,” Roberts adds. “Only he can answer that. But certainly, you felt that every time (with Wales) he was happy, he was content. He was in an environment where he felt safe.”
Gunter agrees. “He would have felt he was trusted when he came back to play for Wales,” he says. “There was no other noise of whether he was playing well or not. He had the trust of everyone in terms of his team-mates, the staff, the supporters and the media. So he didn’t have to deal with anything else. So he probably would have seen that as coming home.”
The story that Roberts tells about Bale regularly choosing to stay over with the rest of the squad following Wales away matches, and being one of the last to leave the following morning, rather than jumping on a private jet straight back to Spain, can be interpreted in different ways.
For Roberts, it was a simple case of Bale sending the right message to the other Wales players and the staff. “He wasn’t one that wanted special attention. He just wanted to be part of the group, dealt with and treated exactly the same,” Roberts explains.
Admittedly, that was easier said than done at times. Sam Vokes paints an amusing picture as he describes the scene when the Wales players left the team hotel during a trip to China in 2018. “There would be two or three security guards with us, all around Gareth, and 22 of us somewhere else,” the former Wales striker tells The Athletic, laughing.
“But Gareth’s so down to earth. If he didn’t have a pack of Uno cards in his hand, it would probably be a putter — putting up and down the hallways. Every time you tried to step out of your hotel room, there was usually a stray ball from Gareth or Wayne (Hennessey, Wales’ long-serving goalkeeper).”
Yet Bale had another side to him, too.
“Don’t let him fool you,” Robert Earnshaw, the former Wales striker, tells The Athletic. “He’s very relaxed, he’s very easy-going. But Gareth Bale knows who he is — he knows he’s a superstar. That plays into him being confident enough to say, ‘Give me the ball, give me that free kick. We’re facing England? No problem, I’ve got you guys. I know the pressure is on me, it’s OK, I’ll be ready’.”
For all the stories about the camaraderie within the Wales squad and the fun and laughter that the players had whenever they reported for international duty, Roberts is quick to point out that Bale “wasn’t coming to camp for an easy ride”.
“I remember once he complained that we hadn’t trained hard enough,” Roberts says. “He complained in a constructive manner on the pitch. I said, ‘No, Gareth, let’s keep the energy in your legs for the game’. He said, ‘I’ve got to take it out of my legs first before putting it back in’. He didn’t feel that physically he was doing enough that was going to prepare him properly for the game, which was a great point.”
On another occasion, Bale approached Chris Coleman, Wales’ manager at the time, and Roberts before a crucial Euro 2016 qualifier in Israel, where a new formation was to be used. Coleman intended to play with a box midfield that featured Bale and Aaron Ramsey as two No 10s. Bale wasn’t captain — centre-back Ashley Williams wore the armband — but his leadership shone through.
“The feedback quickly came back to me and Chris that the players weren’t sure and Gareth led that in terms of asking, ‘Why are we doing this?’,” Roberts recalls. “There was a genuine concern. If they didn’t care, they wouldn’t be asking any questions. But they took responsibility for their performances and therefore had to believe in what they were doing before they could carry it out. So we had to have a follow-up meeting and start by saying, ‘We gather that the feedback is that you’re not so sure’.”
Once Bale and his team-mates knew why they were playing that system, and not just what it would look like and how it would work, everybody was on board. A couple of days later, they all got their reward — the box midfield worked perfectly as Bale scored twice and Ramsey got the other in an outstanding 3-0 victory.
At the Euros the following year, it was Bale who knocked on the staff room door, in the wake of that last-minute 2-1 group stage defeat against England, to say that the players wanted to stay together the next day, rather than be given time off away from the group to catch up with families, which was Coleman’s original plan. “Gareth came in and said, ‘We win together and lose together, so we don’t want anyone going on their own or doing their own thing’,” Roberts recalls.
Bale was in his prime at that stage of his international career. His contribution during the Euro 2016 qualification — he scored seven of Wales’ 11 goals and assisted another two — was huge and, at times, jaw-dropping. “He’d just glide past players,” Vaughan adds. “Even the opposition would be looking at each other and saying ‘Wow’. Or if you were on the bench, you’d hear their subs talking about him. He was just on another level.”
“He was able to replicate what he was doing for his club in a national shirt,” Roberts adds. “We’ve had top, top players at club level in the past and we’ve not quite got them to, perhaps, perform or to be able to be as effective in the Wales team. Credit to the players around Gareth, of course, but also to him for the way he went about building that team. The goals he scored were incredible.”
Although Bale always pushed back strongly on any talk of Wales being a one-man team — “Together Stronger” was much more than a marketing slogan from his point of view — he was a game-changer for his country, capable of producing goals out of nothing and almost single-handedly winning matches.
“I don’t want to say that you expected it, because you don’t want to rely on it… but we kind of did,” Vokes says. “There was this kind of mentality where you’d think, ‘Stay in games and Gareth will win it for us.’”
Gunter nods. “There wasn’t a plan, but you would always feel as a player, whether you would admit it or not, at any one time he could do something to completely flip the game — and there were times when he did.”
That narrative took hold on the back of Scotland’s visit, in a World Cup qualifier, in October 2012.
With Wales losing 1-0 with nine minutes remaining, Bale won and converted a penalty, then scored an outrageous 89th-minute winner from 30 yards. “I was on the bench at that moment, sat right behind it, and that was one of the sweetest strikes of a football I’ve seen,” Vokes adds.
Highlights of Bale’s outstanding performance in that Scotland match were doing the rounds on Twitter in October, marking the fact it was a decade ago. Gunter played that night but says it was only when he recently rewatched the footage that he realised the way Bale was playing at the time “wasn’t normal”.
Everything seemed so easy for Bale back then, so much so that he could have been forgiven for thinking that qualification for a major tournament was in his hands. Did he have that level of self-awareness? “I think especially for Wales it might have dawned on him that he was the player that could make the difference for us, and become almost immortal really, a superhero figure,” Vaughan says.
Eighteen months after the Scotland game, Wales took on Iceland at home; Bale was irrepressible. “That’s the one,” Gunter says, his eyes lighting up at the memory of Bale’s extraordinary goal. “If you were to ask me what it was like (when Bale was at his peak), if I could get one clip, it would be that one.”
Showing an incredible burst of pace, Bale ran off the pitch and back on again to avoid Solvi Jonsson’s cynical attempt to bring him down, before cutting inside another Iceland player and curling the ball into the bottom corner. “A surreal moment,” adds Vokes.
In Vokes’ eyes, Bale was at his “all-time best” at Euro 2016, where he scored in all three group games as Wales, having never qualified for the European Championship before, reached the semi-finals. Vokes remembers how all the squad would walk over at the end of training to watch Bale work on his free kicks.
“I can picture it, and I used to enjoy it so much,” he says. “You would almost be in awe of him. He’s got no ego at all, which is one of the best things about Gareth — he’s a mate as much as he’s a team-mate. But he’s also a superstar.”
A superstar who never allowed the disparity in ability between himself and some of his team-mates — Bale regularly lined up alongside internationals who played their club football in the Championship, English football’s second tier — to become a source of frustration.
“You see it every week on TV when players are throwing their arms around. I’ve never once seen that with him,” Gunter adds.
“I don’t think anyone would ever say, even newer or younger players that would not have known him on a personal level, that he’s made them feel uncomfortable or you have to gain his approval, or you wonder what he’s thinking of you. He just treats everybody the same and it’s no coincidence, then, that when younger players come into the squad, they seem to settle quickly.”
“WALES. GOLF. MADRID. IN THAT ORDER.”
“Paul Harris, the masseur, went to get it,” Gunter says.
Gunter is talking about the flag that found its way onto the pitch on a November evening in Cardiff in 2019. Predrag Mijatovic, the former Real Madrid player and sporting director, had coined the phrase by suggesting on a radio show one night that Bale’s priorities were Wales, golf, and Madrid — in that order.
The Wales fans turned it into a song, one supporter got the words printed onto a Welsh flag, and the next thing you know Bale is dancing behind it, alongside all his team-mates, complete with huge grins on their faces, as they celebrated Euro 2020 qualification.
Not surprisingly, the media in Madrid had a field day.
“That was a bit of a claim to fame for me — it’s the first time I’ve ever made it onto the front page of a Spanish newspaper!” says Vokes, who is standing on the right next to Bale in the photo that went viral.
“It was a bit of fun,” continues Vokes, smiling. “The ramifications of what came from it over in Spain… I’m sure I can see why from their point of view. But for us, or Gareth, it was very innocently done. It was quite a funny moment.”
Gunter is in the photo, too.
“That was probably towards the point where a lot of stuff was being said and written, an agenda created, and it probably got to… not that we’ve ever really spoken about it, but my opinion would be that it was almost at the point where he (Bale) didn’t really care what the fall-out was going to be because whatever happened, something would have been shaped in a certain way anyway.
“That ‘Wales. Golf. Madrid’ thing was already a topic of conversation in Spain anyway.”
Bale’s club career was drifting at that point, and internationally the goals had started to dry up, too — he went 16 Wales matches without scoring before a hat-trick against Belarus in September 2021.
By the time the single-leg World Cup play-off semi-final against Austria came around last March, questions were being asked about what sort of performance Bale could be expected to deliver, given that he had played less than two hours for Real Madrid across the previous six months.
The answer was emphatic as Bale scored two goals of the highest quality in a 2-1 victory. “Even at this stage, where people are talking about his age or saying that he’s a different player, the outcome is still the same,” Gunter adds.
“That game (against Austria) is no different to the ones like Cyprus away (in the Euro 2016 qualification campaign) where he scored the header. It’s a tight game, he jumps ridiculously high to win the header, we win 1-0 and it’s an amazing Welsh performance. If he’s not on the pitch, we probably draw 0-0 and it’s disappointing. It was the same in that game in March.
“All the talk before was that he hadn’t been playing for so long. But I think special things happen to the top one per cent of sports people — they deliver at times when others don’t.”
The end result is that Welsh football is in a totally different place on and off the pitch.
Roberts smiles when he thinks back to how Neil Taylor, then Wales’ first-choice left-back, would always play a game when the team bus pulled through the gates for a home match. “He would be counting how many people would be outside the Cardiff City Stadium waiting for us when we arrived,” Roberts says. “‘We’ve got nine, 10… 11 today, lads!’.”
Selling out home games would have been unthinkable back then. Now it feels like the norm.
After going more than 50 years without appearing at a major tournament, stretching way back to 1958, Wales qualified for successive European Championships and a World Cup during Bale’s time. It has been a golden age for Welsh football in that respect and Bale’s part in it is impossible to overstate.
“You wouldn’t link it to one thing or to one person,” says Gunter, who is the most-capped Wales player in history. “But if you were ever thinking about the things that have got us to this point now, Gareth Bale would be at the forefront.
“It’s not just Gareth who has changed Welsh football and got it to where it is now. But in terms of on the pitch, if you had to put it down to one person, it would only ever be him.”
(Main graphic — photos: Getty Images/Design: Sam Richardson)
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