As Gareth Bale calls time on an extraordinary football career, Nick Davies explains why his on-pitch heroics have contributed to Wales’s cultural self-confidence as much as to our sporting success.
At the turn of the millennium, historian and sportswriter Huw Richards concluded the book, For Club and Country: Welsh Football Greats, with a chapter titled, almost with ironic resignation, Hope Springs Eternal: “We cannot expect to win, or even qualify for, the World Cup […] but it is important that we are good enough to dream.” Our collective ambition in 2000 was merely to entertain the notion of having collective ambition. Two decades on and a nation of apathetic dreamers is a nation of bucket-hatted global participants. And for that, one man has been largely responsible.
Gareth Bale, who retired from football last Monday, has not only achieved greatness on the pitch, but has transformed an entire nation’s perception of itself off it. He is a cultural icon as much as a sporting one. Huw Richards’s co-editor on For Club and Country, Peter Stead, asserted that despite the then nascent National Assembly’s emphasis on economic regeneration, “the battle to redefine Wales is essentially a cultural one. As we save our football and our culture, we save our nation.” Bale has done just that. Fanciful new millennium hopes are replaced now by glorious recent memories and a legacy of healthy self-confidence. He might not know it, but he is the figurehead of a post-devolution Wales.
To watch Gareth Bale play was at times like watching a cartoon character in a live-action film; Road Runner superimposed onto a Lars Von Trier movie. With his distinctive bun tied taut to his head, he was an instantly recognisable silhouette, apt for opposing full-backs who became well acquainted with his shadow. For a time, the fastest footballer on Earth, it wasn’t simply his speed that mesmerized but the way he shaped his body, his left foot wrapped around the ball, pushing it with no spin, his limbs bendier than most, shoulders broader, the balls of his feet bouncier. His goal for Wales versus Iceland in 2014 perhaps exemplifies Bale best, his marker shoving him off the grass and almost into the advertising hoardings before he ignites the afterburners, doglegs back onto the pitch and curls a shot into the bottom corner of the net. A stupendous blend of pace, skill and sheer bloody-mindedness, it was a wholly unique, once-in-a-lifetime passage of play – well, until a month later when he emulated it in mirror image on the opposite flank to score the winning goal for Real Madrid against Barcelona in the final of the Copa del Rey.
With 41 goals from 111 caps stretching across 16 years, there are myriad memories for Wales fans to cherish. There are the impossible free kicks, from his first ever international goal v Slovakia, to the Euro 2016 opener against the same opposition that allayed all our fears that perhaps we might not belong at the top table of international football, and then the shot versus England that seemed propelled by a low catapult. Perhaps the greatest of all was his free kick against Austria last spring that in one movement achieved such whip, bend and dip I would challenge physicists to dedicate PhDs to the subject. All that without mentioning his dead-ball effort versus Ukraine – deflected, less spectacular, but the goal that finally secured Wales’s passage to the World Cup. Bale had an innate knack for stepping up at the right moment, always doing enough.
There were bullet headers, and then the long-range screamers, versus Ireland and dramatically in the closing minutes against Scotland in driving Cardiff rain where he seemed intent on dragging a young Wales team lacking in confidence to the Olympian heights he deserved. Hugh MacDonald of The Herald wrote of that latter performance: “It may seem absurd to say it, but he won this match on his own. At some point, he must have decided it was not profitable to pass to his team-mates […] Not only did he beat Scotland, he beat Scotland up.”
Despite such sentiments, Bale has not achieved this turnaround in Welsh fortunes alone. In team-mates such as Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen, Ben Davies and others, he has been fortunate to be part of a golden generation. But there have been other Wales teams in the past blending A-listers and supporting cast that have fallen agonisingly short (one thinks of Rush, Southall, Hughes and Giggs in the 1980s and ’90s). Bale has been the difference. Those previous Wales teams famously defeated the likes of Germany, Spain and Italy, but fell short when a victory over Finland, Czechoslovakia or Serbia was required. Against stubborn opposition, Bale would come into his own. He clinched winning goals in oft forgotten yet crucial victories versus the likes of Andorra, Cyprus and Belarus that were the bedrock for our recent qualifications. Bale emanated confidence to such an extent that if we were the better team, we would win (not a given in football), without the need for excuses about dire pitches or poor refereeing. And often when we were not the better team, we’d win too.
A few years ago, in reviewing a book on this platform about Welsh football in the seventies, I mentioned how our collective confidence had evolved in the past decades. At the time of writing the review, Gareth Bale had recently headed a desperately needed winner in a qualifying match against an obstinate Azerbaijan team in Cardiff, every sinew in his neck strained like an Olympic sprinter stretching for the line. “I knew we’d do it, Dad,” said my grinning son matter-of-factly, as if supporting Wales would never break our hearts. As I was about to solemnly lecture him on the merits of struggle, of disappointment, of how he didn’t know how lucky he was, it struck me how extraordinary this cultural shift was. He will grow up unencumbered by the pessimistic mantra that, with Welsh football, whatever can go wrong will; he’ll believe that being Welsh can actually be fun. Our children’s generation will not assume that being a plucky loser is their preordained place in the order of things. They can do and be whatever they want. Not just in football, but in any field they choose.
What young person can fail to be inspired by such a global reference point for a tiny nation, at his peak one of the finest exponents of the world’s most popular sport? The term ‘Wales’ has never been Googled more than when Bale so gloriously led his team to the semi-finals of Euro 2016, the country’s first major tournament in 58 years, and again most recently at last year’s World Cup, or when his goals – one of them a balletic bicycle kick considered one of the greatest of all time – won Real Madrid the Champions League.
When Wales recently reached the World Cup in Qatar, I was fortunate to be part of the team behind Gŵyl Cymru, a nationwide festival of arts events and gigs celebrating the achievement of the Cymru men’s team. A collaboration between the FA of Wales, the Arts Council of Wales and Welsh Government, it was an initiative born of cultural self-confidence. The Gŵyl Cymru logo, by illustrator Phil Morgan, was based on Gareth Bale’s goal celebration in which he presses his thumbs and forefingers into a heart shape – it was a natural choice, recognisable to all, football fans or not, without a ball or Adidas kit in sight. Even if we had qualified in the past without Bale, I doubt the sense of pride in ourselves would have stretched to a national arts celebration, but Bale and his team-mates’ insistence on embracing Dafydd Iwan’s Yma o Hyd and reflecting our cultural values as well as our sporting ones, inspired an assertiveness within our national organisations, not least a resurgent FAW.
Gareth Bale raises Wales’s profile worldwide and, equally significantly, inflates what Cymru means to people here. He symbolises an emerging independent spirit like no-one else in the public eye. When he famously said during Euro 2016, “The dragon on my shirt, that’s all I need,” it was powerful in its passion, but more striking in the fact that no other Welsh player had ever talked like this before. We had been blessed with footballing talent, of course, but none that seemed so committed, so assured. Here was the planet’s most expensive footballer uttering these words about a badge and a shirt that for decades had been largely neglected, unloved.
In an era of globalisation where the Premier League and mega-clubs like Barcelona and Bale’s own Real Madrid prevail – an era in which he has flourished on the club scene winning five Champions Leagues among 19 major honours – playing for Wales has remained his priority. He has always been more Cymro than Galáctico. While posing behind the ‘Wales. Golf. Madrid. In that order’ banner irreparably marred his relationship with Real Madrid, they were actions that underlined his unwillingness to play to anyone else’s tune. He never hid the fact he was happiest playing with his mates from home, and this showed in his performances, carefree yet relishing the responsibility of taking them with him on the next adventure. We loved him for it.
Perhaps the recent World Cup proved an adventure too far for a player who has struggled with injury for the past few years. Some players pragmatically adapt their style when they reach their thirties, but for Bale, whose game is marked by an explosive athleticism, this would have seemed a timid option. It was fitting that he at least scored his last ever professional goal – a penalty against the United States – on the biggest stage of all.
Last Monday’s announcement of his retirement still stunned in spite its inevitability. Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone… On tuning into BBC Radio Wales, one expected to hear nothing but a tolling bell.
Tributes from Wales have been rightly fulsome, though some from elsewhere have been markedly lukewarm, talking of a prodigious talent curtailed by injury and age, a career marked by magical moments more than permanence. But that is because those commentators don’t truly recognise what it means to succeed when from a small country – and, not only that, but to haul that country with you, to encourage your compatriots to imagine themselves anew. The nearest equivalent might be Johan Cruyff who in the seventies both recreated and represented what a resurgent Netherlands might look like, leaving a permanent imprint on his nation’s culture and its football. One could make a case that Michael Laudrup did the same for a then underachieving Denmark. Those players left legacies that resound today, their teams now regulars at major tournaments, and I dare say their people happier. That Gareth Bale has achieved this for a country as small in population as Wales, whose very sense of nationhood is forever questioned by external observers, is even more extraordinary. A singular achievement that few outside this country will ever fully understand. Wales’s Wal Goch, its Red Wall of supporters (a term that was coined by Bale himself) certainly understands and will be forever grateful.