The retirement of Gareth Bale marks the end of a career that was about moments rather than graft alone, and while that annoyed some, it suited him just fine.
Professional footballers come with a range of different skill sets. Some are dynamos, bundles of perpetual energy who act as an engine for an entire team. Others take a more peripheral role, feeding off the opportunities provided by others or which they can create for themselves.
Gareth Bale fell squarely into the latter of these two categories, but he was never a shirker. Always a player who was confident in his own abilities, he touched greatness in Madrid but ended up on the wrong side of the club and its supporters regardless. But for his national team he was a hero, a player upon whom it was possible to hang the most unlikely of hopes.
That Bale should have announced his retirement at 33 years of age is a shock in some respects but not a surprise. On the one hand, some players are finding that they can extend their careers for longer than was previously possible. Now 30 is the new 25, and while there’s somebody prepared to continue extending those lucrative playing contracts it makes sense, in an insecure profession in which each contract might easily be your last, to keep going for as long as possible. Quitting at 33 feels counter-intuitive. The recent success of Lionel Messi in Qatar is an obvious and very recent case in point.
But Bale has been winding down from a career at the top for some considerable time. To appear at the 2022 World Cup was the sort of ambition that cannot be bought. The international game largely strips away the ability to buy success. If you achieve at international level, you achieve entirely on your own merits.
For Bale, country clearly means a great deal and to captain an international team with a fairly dismal previous qualification record to the finals of three major tournaments in six-and-a-half years offered him something that money in and of itself simply could not buy. Wales’s adventure at Euro 2016 was something that supporters of that team will never forget, and it was built on his brilliance.
In the moment of retirement, it’s worth recalling those brilliant moments. Gareth Bale lifted Spurs far beyond where an otherwise humdrum team should have been before being the subject of a world record £85m transfer fee. He scored arguably the greatest Champions League final goal of all-time against Liverpool in 2018. He scored the goal that took Wales to their first World Cup finals in 64 years and then their only goal once they got there. Even when past his prime, there remained a sense that he was a player who could bend a game to his will and carry others on that journey with him.
The way in which he carried himself as the Wales captain was a fine example of how the captaincy – a role traditionally afforded considerably more importance on this particular island than anywhere else in the world – can be utilised to bring something extra to a role that is often regarded elsewhere as purely ceremonial elsewhere. There have been few other players in recent years who have looked so clearly like a role model to all around them than Gareth Bale when he was with Wales.
And in an era in which we all may be starting to learn a little more about the idea of work-life balance, Bale exhibited an admirable sense of proportion in terms of where football was positioned in his list of priorities. ‘Wales, golf, Madrid, in that order’ became something approaching a rallying cry for Welsh supporters as his career in the Spanish capital started to wane and his national team started appearing in major tournament finals.
That may have been a tiny bit overstated to wind up those precious Madridistas who spat bile at him as his career began a long process of winding down. They wanted him to cancel his lavish contract and walk away from their club for their entirely selfish reasons, but Bale seemed to know his priorities, his responsibilities, and his rights. He left Madrid when it worked for him.
He could have done things differently. When the pressure started to build at Madrid, he could have made ostentatious displays of effort, running aimlessly to satisfy those who judge a player’s quality by the amount of sweat they’ve expended by the end of a match. But that would not have been Bale.
Of course, his career is not a spotless record. His injury record was far from stellar, while the way in which his career wound down seemed to hint at a player who wasn’t quite sure what to do next. His loan return to Spurs wasn’t especially successful – although he did score more than a goal every other game in the Premier League; 11 in 20 appearances, 10 of which came from the bench – and his time in Los Angeles felt like a means to an end and little more.
But even here, his late, late goal in the MLS Cup final for LAFC, a goal which came in the eighth minute of stoppage-time at the end of extra-time – and four minutes after their opponents Philadelphia Union had scored what they surely presumed to be the winning goal -rescued a penalty shootout which they went on to win. One final medal to add to the pile claimed in Madrid over the previous decade and another memory to add to one of the world’s great football showreels.
In a society that places so much value on ‘work ethic’, Gareth Bale was a player who let his moments of magic do the talking for him. There will be some – perhaps many – who will believe that he could or should have achieved more. He might well contend that 15 medals with Real Madrid and leading his national team to a level of success they’d never managed before is plenty enough for one playing career.
There will be many in Spain who will disagree but it certainly feels as though, even if his retirement comes a little sooner than some may have expected, he has deserved the opportunity to spend more time on the fairway.
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