Whether or not Gareth Bale is the greatest Welsh footballer of all time is subjective. Those of you with very long memories might instead prefer to think of Ryan Giggs at his youthful peak, Ivor Allchurch in the 1950s, or perhaps even John Charles. For most fans, though, Bale is comfortably first-placed. He’s at least the greatest Wales player of the 21st century. Unfortunately, though, all good things come to an end. Bale might be coming to the end of his career earlier than we all imagine.
The entire Wales squad was understandably disappointed with the nature of the team’s elimination from the Euro 2020 tournament in a 4-0 defeat to Denmark. Facing the press is probably the last thing Bale wanted to do in the immediate aftermath, but doing so is part of his job as captain. He coped admirably with questions about the tournament and individual Welsh performances within it. When asked about his future in the game, though, he angrily stood up and walked out. The reaction wasn’t necessarily unexpected – Bale has answered virtually no questions at all about his future after the conclusion of last season. The question, though, wasn’t out of order. It’s one that a lot of people are thinking about.
Bale seems to be in a no-win situation in his career at the moment. Although his form for Tottenham Hotspur picked up in the final third of last season, the season as a whole was a disappointment. This was supposed to be a triumphant homecoming both to Spurs and the English Premier League for the Welsh forward. Instead, he spent most of the season on the bench. Former Spurs coach Jose Mourinho said he was working on his fitness. Based on his social media posts, Bale often felt that he was fit enough to play. In any event, if the intention was to show Real Madrid what they were missing, the loan spell was a failure.
Now, Bale finds himself back with Real Madrid. Zinedine Zidane, the coach who seemed to have such a personal issue with him, is gone. Carlo Ancelotti has arrived to replace him and has spoken favourably of Bale, so the player might believe it’s possible to play his way back into the first eleven for Los Blancos. The fans might not allow that. After a sparkling first two or three seasons with Madrid, his relationship with the fans broke down irreparably after he posed for photos holding a flag with the motto “Wales, golf, Madrid, in that order” after an international game. The reaction in Spain was furious. Bale’s car was vandalised, and he was booed mercilessly by his own supporters even on the very rare occasions he came off the bench for Zidane. Ancelotti and the club’s board might be prepared to give him another chance. It’s far from certain that supporters are prepared to do the same.
Even if Real Madrid’s fans were willing to forget the past and get behind Bale again, there’s no certainty that he merits a place in the team anymore. When Wales majestically swept their way to the semi-finals of Euro 2016, Bale was the driving force behind the team. In full flow, he was practically unstoppable. That version of Bale didn’t show up at Euro 2020 and was only seen in fleeting glimpses for Spurs last season. He might only be 32 – an age where many players are still at the peak of their powers now that athletes keep their conditioning for longer – but it’s apparent that he’s in decline. Even with exercise, training, and a healthy diet, there are some factors of ageing that can’t be prevented. Loss of speed is one of the most obvious. Pace was always the greatest tool in Bale’s arsenal. Now he’s beginning to slow down, his edge over other players is disappearing.
Most sportspeople are guilty of going to the well one too many times as they attempt to prolong their careers. Boxers are notorious for it, but footballers do it too. Rather than accepting their time has passed, they descend down the divisions, becoming parodies of their former selves in the process. It’s similar to gamblers not knowing when to walk away from an online slots website. When you get onto a lucky winning streak at an Online Slots IE site, it’s tempting to believe that you can keep it going forever. In reality, though, you’re often better off closing the website after a big win and getting out at your peak. We have no idea whether Gareth Bale is a gambler or not, so he might not know anything about online slots. Regardless of that, though, he should be aware of his own game enough to know that his best days are probably behind him.
There have been some reports in the press that he’s already well aware of this. There’s even speculation that he might retire at the end of next season, coming back only if Wales qualify for the 2022 World Cup. By then, he’ll be 33. If he doesn’t get back into the Madrid team, his options already appear to be limited. There’s been no suggestion of Spurs wanting to make his loan move permanent, and even if they did, Bale might have limited interest in joining a club that faces a significant rebuilding project under new coach Nuno Espirito Santo. During summer transfer windows of the past, he was always linked with Manchester United, but if the Red Devils ever were interested, they don’t appear to be now. Nor is it easy to imagine Bale winning a regular starting place with Liverpool, Manchester City, or Chelsea. Any move he makes from Madrid is likely to be a step down, so it becomes a question of whether Bale wants to make such a step or whether he’d prefer to call it a day.
Whatever happens, his legendary status within the Welsh game is already secure. He’s given Welsh football fans wonderful memories, and in his prime, he was one of the best players in the world. A season or two playing in a reduced capacity at a lesser club wouldn’t change that, but it would be sad to see. While the Wales team might continue to grow in stature, now might be the time to bring the Bale era to an end.