In the end, Gareth Bale decided it was better to burn out than fade away. It is a choice befitting a supernova of a player, capable of shining as bright as any player of his generation when at his sparkling best.
Bale retired on Monday at the relatively tender age of 33. It came as a shock only because he insisted in the immediate aftermath of Wales’ World Cup group stage exit in Qatar that he would continue. The sad truth is that recently his body has shown signs of wear not because of the miles travelled but from the scorching speeds he reached.
It was in the San Siro on Oct. 20, 2010, that Bale announced himself to the world, and those of us there that night will never forget it. Tottenham would end up losing 4-3 to Inter Milan, but Bale’s hat trick demonstrated a mixture of devastation and defiance that would come to encapsulate his career.
Spurs were 4-0 down and playing with 10 men after a disastrous first half, but in a boorish atmosphere with the Nerazzurri eyeing a complete humiliation, a 21-year-old left winger somehow found the courage to play with unalloyed freedom. His second-half hat trick was no fluke; rather, it was the product of his fearsome pace and direct style.
Bale burst down the left and fired a low shot, arrowlike, past Julio Cesar with striking efficiency not once or twice but three times. In the reverse match a fortnight later, he tormented Inter again, starring in a 3-1 win that had the crowd chanting “Taxi for Maicon!” as one of the game’s most respected full-backs was reduced to a punchline.
Clive Allen was assistant coach to then-Spurs manager Harry Redknapp that season. “Amazingly, Inter didn’t seem to have a specific plan for him,” Allen said of that second match. “We anticipated in the days before the game they might double up or man-mark him. Yet they just left Maicon one-on-one.”
It would be the last time an opponent failed to plan for Bale.
The skinny, almost waiflike teenager who joined from Southampton as a left-back and failed to win any of his first 24 Premier League matches at Tottenham went on to become one of the most feared players in the game; his remarkable 2012-13 campaign yielded 21 goals and persuaded Real Madrid to pay a then world-record £85.3 million fee to bring Bale to the Bernabeu Stadium that summer.
By that point, defenders had resorted to extreme measures. Bale remains the only player in memory to leave the pitch in the middle of a lung-bursting run, pushed there by a defender terrified of the foot race that had just begun, yet still able to maintain his balance and poise to reach the ball he had played into space before delivering the most devastating end product.
The Copa del Rey final in April 2014 was the apotheosis of this particular skill. Marc Bartra the victim, Barcelona the vanquished. He did similar against Iceland for Wales a month earlier, too.
Bale would spend nine years at Madrid, racking up five Champions League triumphs, three LaLiga titles and three Club World Cups. In October 2016, he reportedly signed a contract that made him the best-paid player in world football, but among the Madridistas, Bale was never adored in the same way as Cristiano Ronaldo, whose talent and ego demanded he would not share centre stage with anyone.
For many years, Ronaldo consistently hit a level only Lionel Messi could match with any regularity, and Bale’s career, increasingly blighted by injury, became about single moments — lightning bolts punctuating the enveloping darkness that his time in Madrid came to resemble.
But my, how bright those flashes were: the free-kicks, the solo runs, the volleys. Bale’s overhead kick in the 2018 Champions League final against Liverpool was a goal so stunning it is seared into the memory banks forever. He started that game on the bench and ended it immortalised as part of one of Real’s all-time greatest sides.
Mark Ogden reflects on Gareth Bale’s career after he announced his retirement from professional football.
Bale’s club career would never scale such heights again, and accusations that he was not applying himself at Madrid steadily became the prevailing narrative: one such celebration while on Wales duty in which Bale held a “Wales, golf, Madrid — in that order” flag was the final straw in the deterioration of his relationship with the club’s fans.
Bale is certainly not ignorant of his own image and status, but he was never one to play the public relations game. He likes golf, so he’ll play it. What shone through brightest in the latter part of his career, however, was a genuine love and affection for Wales, something that had always been there in his early years. As he got older, the opportunity to take his country into major tournaments became his driving force.
Euro 2016 marked Wales’ first finals appearance in 58 years, and they reached the semifinals with Bale at the heart of everything, scoring three times. Attempts to reach a second Euros and a first World Cup began to drive his decisions at the club level: a stuttering loan back to Tottenham for the 2020-21 season featuring just seven appearances preceded a move to Los Angeles FC, where he won the MLS Cup in what has now turned out to be his final club game as a professional.
But all the while he resembled a thoroughbred heading out for the occasional stretch to blow away the cobwebs, biding his time for the biggest races to come. Wales successfully reached the delayed Euro 2020 finals, but it was in reaching the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, the country’s first in 64 years, that Bale took his homeland to places they could only dream of.
Wales became his haven away from the turmoil of Madrid, and in turn he embraced the starring role, revelling in the pressure of taking a squad made up largely of lesser talents from lower divisions to, finally, a World Cup. However, he was a shadow of his best in Qatar, scoring his country’s only goal from the penalty spot against the U.S., and after an ineffectual display against Iran, Bale was substituted with an injury at half-time in defeat to England.
It was a stage befitting of the player, even if it was bereft of a performance worthy of a curtain call. Bale’s decline had begun, and he had no interest in raging against the dying of the light.
Bale ends his career with 41 goals in 111 caps and a strong case for being Wales’ greatest-ever player. Nobody who has amassed 18 trophies making up some of the most coveted in the game could ever be accused of a lack of hunger, determination or dedication, but Bale chose to compartmentalise his talent. He sought a balanced life, joy away from the club game on the golf course or in the unusually close camaraderie of his Wales teammates.
Some will have wanted more from a player capable of such match-winning genius. But that is always the problem with anything that burns so bright: the world feels so much darker without it.