It’s now all or nothing for Gareth Bale – win or fail, that’s his ‘Last Dance’. Either the Wales captain will fulfill a lifelong ambition and end a 64-year wait for his country by qualifying for the World Cup on Sunday, or it will be the end of a glorious but complicated career.
Sources have told ESPN that Bale is ready to retire from football if Wales lose to Ukraine in their delayed European Path A qualifier final at Cardiff City Stadium. But if they win, he will extend his career for another six months, only to tick the one unchecked box on his achievement roll call.
Bale’s agent Jonathan Barnett hinted at such a result last month: “Gareth doesn’t know what will happen this summer,” Barnett said. Sports Telegraph. “It all depends on Wales.”
Less than a week after bidding farewell to Real Madrid at the end of his contract after nine years at the Santiago Bernabeu days after picking up his fifth Champions League winners’ medal, the 32-year-old winger has no doubt saved the greatest moment of his career – and there were some great ones – until the very end.
Wales have not played at a World Cup since 1958. World-class players including Ian Rush (Liverpool), Neville Southall (Everton), Mark Hughes and Ryan Giggs (both from Manchester United) have all tried and failed to bring the nation to football’s greatest. tournament. But, having inspired Wales to qualify for Euro 2016 and Euro 2020, Bale is now one game away from helping the country reach Qatar 2022. And despite his successes with Madrid, playing at a Cup of the world means everything to him.
“Coming into my career in Wales, the main thing was to play in a major tournament,” Bale said during a camp in Wales in 2021. “We managed to do that and now, to be able to Checking everything off the list would be qualifying for a World Cup. For me, qualifying for a World Cup would be amazing.”
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At first glance, Bale’s career has been a footballing fairy tale. He made 102 appearances for Wales, is his country’s top scorer with 38 goals and, following a record £85.3m move from Tottenham in 2013, he won 15 major honors with Real, including these five Champions Leagues and three La Liga titles. He scored two stunning goals in the 2018 Champions League final against Liverpool, and his winning goal in the 2014 Copa del Rey final against Barcelona showed off his incredible pace, power and finishing ability no doubt. better than any goal he’s scored before or since.
Still, there is a ‘but’ with Bale. He is adored in Wales, but his time at Real deteriorated in his final years as he was regularly booed by supporters, criticized for his love of golf and overlooked by coaches due to his fitness record. When he was described as a ‘parasite’ for ‘sucking up’ Madrid’s money by Spanish newspaper Marca earlier this year, Bale called his critics ‘disgusting’.
It’s a complex story, and the final chapter promises to live up to its enigmatic journey. Bale is one of the greatest footballers Britain has ever produced, but for those who know him he remains a reluctant superstar.
Breaking out of the Madrid vs Wales split
“Gareth comes from a working class background,” one of Bale’s friends from his time at Tottenham told ESPN. “His father was a goalkeeper and Gareth was never one to change or have ideas above his position. When he returned to Spurs on loan last season, it felt like a day would never come. wasn’t over since he left – he was the exact same person. He’s not flashy or arrogant. He loves beautiful things, sure, and loves his cars, but all the superstar stuff that comes with playing for Madrid never liked it.
“He has become one of football’s biggest stars, but he remains a big kid with a sense of mischief and someone who treats club staff as his friends as much as his teammates. That’s why he loves playing so much for Wales – – he just feels like he’s back among his buddies and he likes the normality of it all.”
At this point, Bale has dismissed the prospect of some time off after Real’s Champions League final win over Liverpool last Saturday opting to fly straight from Madrid to join the Wales side in Portugal before their Nations League draw with Poland in midweek.
“Gareth was adamant that he was meeting the players in Portugal to fly with them to Poland, which is saying a lot,” Wales manager Rob Page said. “He wanted to be with the team as soon as possible. He’s as humble as ever. He met the group and he was first class straight away.”
But Bale’s unwavering commitment to Wales has created friction in Madrid. In the past two years he has made more appearances for his country (19) than for Real (7), but his relationship with the Spanish club’s supporters plunged in November 2019 when he celebrated qualification for Euro 2020 posing with a Wales flag. bearing the words “Wales. Golf. Madrid. In that order.”
Bale’s love of golf has been a bone of contention in Madrid due to his willingness to spend his free time on the course – he plays with a handicap of four – and his passion for the sport now extends to his golf-themed bar, called Par 59, which opened in Cardiff earlier this year. Still, Bale’s relationship with Real Madrid fans never recovered after the banner incident.
“I had seen the banner a few weeks before,” Bale told the Hat-Trick podcast. “The boys had shown me and they said, ‘If we qualify, let’s try to find it and bring it out. I was like, ‘Do whatever you want, but I’m not going to pick it up.’ They knocked it down, we were all celebrating as a team and I’m not going to jump with my teammates. It was a bit of a joke. A little fun. People can see it the way they like it.
Sources close to Bale told ESPN he was initially reluctant to be seen with the banner but eventually decided to join in the celebrations. “It only worsened his relationship with Madrid,” a source said. “But it got to the point where he felt he couldn’t win with them, so why even try?”
In Madrid, sources added that although Bale and his family were better settled than reports suggest – his wife and children returned to Spain halfway through his season-long loan spell at Spurs last year. last – his family outlook meant he had not attended some of the many player meetings at the club and was viewed by some teammates as aloof and disinterested.
“He’s not a drinker and the party type,” a friend told ESPN. “It’s just not his thing.”
With Wales, however, he is anything but an underdog. He’s the prankster who rearranged the sprinklers at Euro 2020 to make sure his teammates got soaked in a pre-match warm-up, staged a group rally after missing a penalty against Turkey for take responsibility for a potentially costly failure, and is the down-to-Earth star who wants everyone to feel as comfortable as he does when representing the team.
“It’s really amazing how humble he is,” said Sorba Thomas, the Huddersfield winger who made his Wales debut last October. “There aren’t a lot of people who’ve been there and done like him. He might just be like, ‘Yeah, are you okay?’ and then literally not talking to you anymore, but he would sit on the table with us young people and have a full conversation. You just see a different side of him when you’re there. He’s a legend in Madrid and that is a Premier League legend.”
Retiring or finding a new club? The World Cup could decide
Bale’s career could now enter its final 90 minutes. No one ESPN has spoken to – those who know how he thinks – thinks he will continue as a footballer if Wales fail against Ukraine this weekend. “That will be it,” said a friend. “He fell in love with the game a bit, and it’s only Wales and the World Cup that keeps him going now.”
If Wales win, then Bale need to find a club this will allow them to play and stay fit between now and November, when Qatar 2022 kicks off. Wales will take last place in Group B if they qualify and start their campaign against USA on November 21, before facing Iran and neighboring England.
Speculation has suggested that Bale will sign a short-term contract with Cardiff City in the EFL Championship, while a move to the United States has also been suggested due to the MLS season continuing until October or the 5th. November if he joins a team that does. to the MLS Cup Final.
Sources close to Bale are doubtful of a move to Cardiff, telling ESPN playing in such a ruthless league so close to a World Cup would be a risk the 32-year-old is unlikely to take. But Bale and Wales must travel to Qatar first. This is the main concern. Any other decision will be dictated by the outcome of Sunday’s game in Cardiff.
There is no doubt that Bale is still capable of being the man who will make all the difference for Wales. His two goals against Austria earned him the 2-1 victory which secured him a place in the final of the qualifiers against Ukraine for a place at the World Cup.
He has logged just 29 minutes of competitive football for club and country since that March night in Cardiff, so time will tell how fit and ready he will be on Sunday.
But it’s really win or lose now for Bale, so there’s no point in holding back.