The first time Gareth Bale scored a goal in professional football, he was a Championship left-back. The last time he did, it was his country’s first in a World Cup for 64 years. In between, he became officially the most successful British footballer ever in the European Cup or Champions League, as a five-time winner, arguably the greatest Welsh player of all time and a phenomenon. For years, he was the most famous Welsh golfer, too.
No one had a career quite like Bale. If his started out like Luke Shaw, another teenage prodigy on the left of the Southampton defence, he became the Cardiff Cristiano Ronaldo, the serial Champions League winner on the wing for Real Madrid. He helped drag Wales from 117th in the world rankings to the semi-finals of Euro 2016. He took them to a World Cup, even if he could hardly move in it. He was the curse on Tottenham, the signing who did not play in a Premier League win in his first two years at White Hart Lane but who went on to become the destroyer of defences.
If his retirement caught most unawares – six weeks ago, he was pledging to play for Wales “as long as I am wanted” – maybe it was Bale’s final example of his ability to surprise. More than virtually any other footballer of his generation, he had the capacity to produce something out of nothing, often in stunning style. That first goal, on his third appearance for Southampton, as a 16-year-old, was a perfect free-kick against Derby. Twelve years later, he scored perhaps the greatest goal in European Cup finals, the astonishing overhead kick against Liverpool.
He was a supreme striker of a ball, as an array of volleys, half-volleys and long-range strikes demonstrate. What made him one of the world’s most devastating players for the best part of a decade was that he was doubly dangerous: whether within shooting range or with grass in front of him. Arguably his second finest goal showed his scorched earth policy: he ran off the pitch to round Marc Bartra en route to the Copa del Rey final winner against Barcelona in 2014. A race against Bale felt unfair: taunts of “taxi for Maicon” were directed at Inter Milan’s Champions League-winning Brazilian after an evisceration by Bale in 2010, but he might have accelerated away from a cab as well.
Few brought more visceral excitement than Bale in full flight. But greatness did not just stem from his technical or physical gifts, extreme as they were. He had the rare capacity to alter games by force of personality and individual intervention: it was first advertised on the major stage when 10-man Tottenham were 4-0 down to the European Cup holders Inter in San Siro only for Bale to enter unstoppable mode as he scored a hat-trick.
That explosiveness helped make Bale the world’s most expensive player when he joined Real for £85m. It was illustrated with the bicycle kick, two minutes after he came on against Liverpool, and as he became the only substitute to score twice in a Champions League final.
It highlighted the way a shy figure became a big-game player. Even shorn of his pace and mobility, he remained one. If Bale’s time in Los Angeles was the coda to a career, it was fitting his final club goal was an equaliser in the 128th minute of the MLS Cup final. If he was a rescuer of lost causes, Wales became his greatest project.
It was Bale who held his nerve to convert the late penalty in Qatar, getting Wales their first point in the World Cup since the 1950s and against a country, in the United States, with 100 times their population. It was Bale, too, who was credited with the goal against Ukraine to get them through their play-off final, Bale, in his last tour de force, who scored twice against Austria in the semi-final, just as in Euro 2016 it had been Bale who became the first Welshman to score in a major tournament since Terry Medwin in 1958. He ends with Wales records for caps (111) and goals (41) but if he was never really about the numbers, that is especially apparent in international football. His influence was both huge and admirable.
There was something endearing about the pleasure he took in playing for Wales; playing with “boys who became brothers”, as he referred to them in his retirement statement, he never seemed irritated by the shortcomings of lesser players. In his country, Bale found a cause greater than personal glory or Real Madrid. “The dragon on my shirt is all I need,” he said as he confirmed his playing days are over. He became a part-time club footballer, readying himself for the international breaks. It had seemed he would try and limp on until Euro 2024, looking to conjure more great moments. The spirit seemed willing, the body presumably was not, and if it was an anti-climax when he went off at half-time against England in Doha, the last game of his career was for Wales in a World Cup. And no one else can say that.