Father Time waits for no-one and on July 16th, 2022 Wales iconic number 11 Gareth Bale will turn 33. When that happens the Real Madrid man will be firmly in the twilight of his career and hopefully for Welsh fans, looking forward to his last major tournament with his country at the Qatar World Cup.
Whilst it’s not ideal to frantically check sports news sites for news of Bale’s impending retirement plans, it’s only natural to ponder what will happen to the Wales national team when he does finally decide to hang up his boots.
Will Lille, Toulouse and Baku become bittersweet memories as Wales return to the pre-Bale doldrums? Or, has the flying forward injected a pride, confidence and self-belief in his fellow countrymen that will carry on for generations?
The only way to say – without building a time machine – is to analyse how influential Gareth Bale has been for Wales. Is the former Tottenham man the main reason for the national team’s success in recent years? Are Wales a one man team? Read on to find out.
(Wales fan? Sit back and enjoy this for a few minutes.)
Wales Before Bale
Gareth Bale made his debut for Wales in May 2006 at the age of 16 years and 315 days in a friendly against Trinidad & Tobago in Austria. The youngster linked up with a team who had just finished 5th in a World Cup qualifying group containing England, Poland, Austria, Northern Ireland and Azerbaijan.
The only bright sparks in that qualifying group came in a hard-fought 3-2 victory at Windsor Park and a laborious 2-0 home win over Azerbaijan. Things were not looking good for Wales in 2006 and the squad on starting XI on Bale’s debut did not inspire confidence.
On that evening Wales lined up in a nominal 3-5-2 comprising Jason Brown, Danny Gabbidon, David Partridge, James Collins, Carl Fletcher, David Vaughan, Carl Robinson, Joe Ledley, Simon Davies, David Cotterill and Robert Earnshaw.
At that point, qualifying for a major tournament was nothing more than a pipe dream for even the most optimistic of Welsh fans.
The Bale Era
After making his debut in 2006 Gareth Bale went on to become somewhat of a regular feature in the Wales squad. His first goal for the national side came in a game to forget as he scored a consolation in Slovakia’s 5-1 drubbing of Wales at the Millennium Stadium later that year.
(Gareth Bale’s first international goal came in a typically underwhelming noughties Welsh performance.)
Over the coming years Bale would retain his place in the Wales squad but early hopes of him becoming a world star had begun to fade. His move to Tottenham Hotspur from Southampton seemed to be ill-fated.
He seemed incapable of displacing Benoit Assou-Ekotto at left back and had racked up a pretty unwanted record with Spurs – it took him two years and four months to finish a game on the winning side with the Lilywhites.
All that would change in the autumn of 2010 when Bale announced himself on the world stage with a stunning hat-trick for Spurs against Inter Milan at San Siro. Under Harry Redknapp Bale had been given licence to play on the left wing and he never looked back.
Whilst Spurs felt the immediate benefits of Bale’s awakening the same could not be said for Wales. In qualifying campaigns for Euro 2012 and World Cup 2014 the country finished second bottom of their group on both occasions.
The next qualifying campaign for Euro 2016 is when Bale really made his mark on the national side, just as his career was shooting off into the stratosphere. During that campaign the newly made Galactico scored 9 of Wales’ 11 qualifying goals and assisted the other 2.
Chris Coleman’s side qualified automatically for Euro 2016, finishing just 2 points behind table toppers Belgium, ending their 58-year major tournament hoodoo in the same breath. The rest for Welsh fans is history.
Gareth Bale proved to be the catalyst behind the side’s improbable run to the semi-finals of that tournament. Then once again in qualifying for Euro 2020 and at the tournament itself, Welsh fans had Bale to thank.
(Bale continues to – pardon the pun – bail Wales out of tough situations even in his advancing years.)
Life Without Bale
So, how influential has Gareth Bale been to Wales over the past 15 years? Immensely. Without him it’s hard to imagine Wales would have qualified for Euro 2016, let alone reached the semi-finals.
Does that mean though that when he retires Wales can kiss goodbye to qualifying for major tournaments again? No. It is easier to qualify for tournaments now, particularly the European Championships than ever before.
Wales by no means have a world class squad without Gareth Bale but they do have a collection of talented players who should be capable of inspiring the nation, even without a talismanic, golf loving, goal scoring sensation leading the line.