The infamous flag read “Wales, golf, Madrid, in that order”. It did not escape attention in the Spanish capital, nor in Marca, the newspaper most associated with Real Madrid, that Gareth Bale declared himself unfit for Sunday’s Clasico loss to Barcelona. but his back pain did not prevent him from training with Wales. The expectation is that he will face Austria on Thursday night.
Bale’s priorities have long been in question at a club where he has won four Champions Leagues. In some respects, he ranks as Britain’s most successful football export. And yet, he can regard his defining achievements as those of his country’s colors. Wales were semi-finalists at Euro 2016, Bale making his first major tournament in 58 years the biggest in its history.
Now he is looking at a supreme glory. Wales’ only World Cup ended in a quarter-final defeat inflicted by Pelé and Brazil. It was in 1958. La Real won their third European Cup that year. They have secured another 10 since then. The fact that Wales have not returned to the World Cup indicates what a historic feat it would be if Bale could guide them to beat Austria and then Scotland or Ukraine in June.
Mathematically, however, they have a one in four chance. It is perhaps his best chance in 28 years: Paul Bodin’s infamous penalty miss in their final group game saw Romania qualify for the 1994 World Cup, beat Argentina and reach the quarter-finals.
Some of that Welsh side, from Ryan Giggs to Ian Rush to Neville Southall, featured in the various hypothetical teams of top players who would miss multiple World Cups. So did Bale later. He finished 12th in the Ballon d’Or voting in 2014: the 11 ahead of him each had a World Cup to bolster his case. In 2018, when Bale scored a spectacular Chilean blow in the Champions League final, nobody got more votes without playing in the tournament.
Now his days among the best in the world are a thing of the past. He is unwanted at Real, having been loaned out last season, limited to 267 minutes in La Liga and four in the Champions League through a combination of injury and manager choice. But at the end of his career comes the opportunity for Wales’s record goalscorer to add to his legacy with his country.
Bale has lost some of his dynamism, but his hat-trick in Belarus was an example of a champion player winning a match by sheer personality. He delivered the attractive cross for Dan James’ decider against the Czech Republic, which ultimately meant Wales finished ahead of their victims.
Let us now turn to Austria, which share certain similarities. Their exile from the World Cup is a long one, albeit only since 1998, and they look to a Real Madrid player for inspiration, although David Alaba is a regular at the Bernabéu, he is closer to his peak and arguably benefits from a best supporting cast
For Wales to be without Kieffer Moore, Tyler Roberts and David Brooks exacerbates the importance of the old signing of Bale and Aaron Ramsey. They have 56 international goals; the rest of the squad has 19.
For both, this is the last chance: they played in the 2010 World Cup qualifiers and are unlikely to feature in the 2026 tournament. Their exploits at Euro 2016, in particular, give them a case for being ranked as the two best Welsh players.
Much of Bale’s purpose seems to come from international football: while others retire to concentrate on club play, he barely plays for Real and is a talisman for Wales. He now needs to convene two more colossal displays to get them to Qatar and keep him off the golf course.
Updated: March 23, 2022, 3:34 PM