The Welsh World Cup qualifying effort ended at the hands of James McClean. The Republic of Ireland snuck past Chris Coleman’s side in Cardiff, snatching the runners-up spot in their shared group and heading to what would ultimately prove a chastening play-off with Denmark.
It was an engaging game. Quintessentially British (and Irish), it was short on quality but long on robust, clunky energy. When two teams from the United Kingdom meet, that’s really what it should look and sound like.
As well as the Irish did to emerge from that game, they were reliant in part on a hopelessly blunt Welsh performance. Coleman’s attacking midfielders and forwards spent an hour-and-a-half banging their head against a toughened concrete wall and succeeded only in knocking themselves out. Given what Wales had been at Euro 2016 and the life with which they often played with, it was deeply disappointing.
The difference can’t be condensed down to the absence of a single player, but the continuous shots of the injured Gareth Bale within the television coverage, looking down nervously from the stands, certainly made that suggestion – and that’s not totally unfair fair. If Bale had played in that game, the Irish would not have been able to defend as deeply as they did and, the chances are, his presence alone would have created some profitable fractures for the hosts.
Bale is 28 now, so his chance of appearing at a World Cup during his prime has disappeared for good. Wales might well make it to Qatar in 2022, but by that point he will presumably be in the midfield quarterback stage of his career. Perhaps still influential, but certainly more static and a mile away from the dynamic force of nature which he has often been to this point.
More broadly, it will be interesting to wonder what Bale himself might think of his career by that point.
He’s currently injured – yet again – and so everything about him is tinted with negativity. Nevertheless, if his career was to end tomorrow, he would have still won the European Cup three times and LaLiga once, and could rightly consider himself one of the most successful British players of his generation. Few players from this island get to play for Real Madrid, fewer still become the most expensive player in the world on joining; it’s clearly contrary to take issue with his career’s path.
But football isn’t that literal and the accumulation of medals doesn’t always translate as it should. For him, specifically, the last four years has been a period of almost assumed success, during which his achievements – quite unfairly – have failed to resonate. At the Santiago Bernabeu, domestic and continental domination is essentially footballing par and Bale – with his freakish athleticism and capacity to decide games in spectacular ways – has seen the perception of his worth diluted by that reality.
Only Real Madrid’s fans can speak of how they feel for him and outside impressions of Spanish football aren’t hugely relevant. Nevertheless, Bale has always seemed slightly wasted at the Bernabeu. Fulfilled, certainly, and obviously highly decorated, but rarely appreciated for what he is. Instead, he has been the perpetual second-fiddle – one of the many, many Robins to the obvious Batman. Cristiano Ronaldo is seemingly always the story in Madrid. And when he’s not, somehow he actually still is: when Bale has scored goals or given good performances, the world was always pretty quick to check Ronaldo’s expression and query the effect on his ego.
In fact, when the Welsh forward scored the winning goal in the 2014 Copa Del Rey final, Spanish television actually cut away from his celebration to show Ronaldo’s reaction in the stands. It was as if, to be a truly great moment, it required the Portuguese’s approval and only once that had been granted could a truly exceptional goal be appreciated for what it was.
“He’s clapping, he’s smiling…it’s okay to do the same…”
It’s worth mentioning, of course, that none of that is Ronaldo’s fault. He’s a once-in-a-generation footballer, inarguably one of the greatest of all time, and that rare air comes with special privileges and disproportionate attention, but it’s still tempting to conclude that Bale – uncommon player that he is in his own right – deserved a slightly different stage.
Or, if not “deserved”, would have benefited from existing in a different sort of gravity. As a true leading light somewhere, or at least a compromise between what he had at Tottenham and what he has moved onto since.
Discussing the legacy of someone who is yet to turn 30 is a bit premature, of course, but history shows that the level of appreciation afforded to a player during his career informs the way he is remembered. With that in mind, it seems particularly unfortunate that Bale traded away his talisman status at Tottenham for the right to be part of the Ronaldo-exalting chorus in Madrid. A king in North London, but one of many, many princes in Spain.
He became too big for Spurs, that’s beyond dispute. His transfer away in 2013 also gave him access to a level of the game which the club could never have provided. Ironically, though, that move arguably downgraded him in status. It made him more famous and certainly exposed him to greater global attention – both good and bad – but it also changed the tone of the mood which surrounded him. Whereas before Bale had previously always been discussed in terms of what he might allow Tottenham to achieve, after he departed an appetite grew for discovering his limitations and exposing his flaws.
That was inevitable. It’s the toll any footballer pays for moving into the blinding spotlight of a super club. Nevertheless, Bale has become part of the counter-argument against the assumption that trophies and success bring validation. Not so. Ironically, his stock was never higher in the game than during that last season under Andre Villas-Boas. In that team, he was one of a kind. Five years later, he is just one of many. Rather than being lit up by his surroundings, it’s as if he’s been normalised by his context.
The assumption is also that he has now approaching the beginning of the end. Madrid are currently offering no set return date for his latest comeback and that, given what it follows, is troubling. The proliferation of back and muscle injuries will surely take a toll on his acceleration and athleticism and so, approaching his thirties, it would seem unlikely that he will ever be the same player again. That might be wrong, time will tell. If it does prove to be the case, however, the temptation is to wonder whether the grass really was greener – whether trophy hardware and a bigger wage really were more valuable than being held in such extraordinarily high regard.
At Tottenham, his performances will be talked about forever and the memory of his goals, to this day, warm the heart of even the most cynical, dead-behind-the-eyes supporter. His performances since may remain memorable for some time, but never again as a club footballer has he possessed that same otherworldly glint.
So yes, Real Madrid may have satiated his ambition, but the club have certainly taken his immortality in return.