It’s now or never for Gareth Bale to get the one thing missing on his CV and guide Wales to a World Cup… he may be exiled at Real Madrid under Carlo Ancelotti but Wales’ all-time top scorer heads to Cardiff with a shot at history
- Wales host Austria in Cardiff tonight in their World Cup play-off semi-final
- The Dragons have not managed to qualify for a World Cup since back in 1958
- Near-misses have left a mark and a World Cup is missing from Gareth Bale’s CV
- In what could be his final crack at it, Bale will be expected to deliver as captain
Don’t be fooled by recent years of exile at Real Madrid, Gareth Bale has one of the finest CVs in world football.
Four Champions League titles, two LaLiga titles, one Copa del Rey, three UEFA Super Cups, three Club World Cups, two PFA Players’ Player of the Year gongs and a Premier League Player of the Season to boot.
But one thing is missing and as much as he says not adding it to that aforementioned CV will not leave any regrets, reaching a World Cup and ending Wales’ hoodoo since they last made it in 1958 would be among his greatest ever achievements.
Gareth Bale has a smile on his face ahead of a huge World Cup play-off semi-final on Thursday
Exiled by Real Madrid, he is barely playing but knows Wales will need him to go and deliver
Wales have not qualified for a World Cup since 1958 and there have been a series of near-misses.
There was incredible agony in 2017 when Martin O’Neill’s Republic of Ireland came to Cardiff and did a number on Wales. Bale had to watch the horrors unfold from the stands that night.
Bale has had a smile on his face in the build-up to tonight’s game with Austria and that relaxed manner will spread among a squad that know they are within touching distance of making history for a nation that has been starved of FIFA’s premier competition.
He will know as well that this is likely his last shot at it. Fail this time against Austria, or in the eventual play-off eliminator against the winner of Scotland versus Ukraine and he will be closing in on his 37th birthday by the time the 2026 World Cup rolls around.
So it is fair to say this is most likely it. Now or never. He’s come up massive for Wales time and time again – think back to that vital goal in qualifying in the run up to Euro 2016 away at Cyprus or guiding Wales to the semi-finals of that tournament – but now he must do it again to take Robert Page’s side to the biggest competition of all in Qatar this winter.
‘I wouldn’t say it would be a regret if I didn’t play in a World Cup as it’s not really in my hands but it’s something I would love to achieve for myself, my country, the fans of Wales,’ Bale said this week.
He has produced numerous iconic moments, including a late brace to beat Scotland in 2012
Bale is already in the pantheon of Welsh greats but reaching a World Cup completes his CV
‘It’s been a long time. It will only be a regret if we don’t give 100 per cent and leave anything in the tank.
‘Once you’ve done that there won’t be regrets regardless of the result. Hopefully our best will be enough.’
So will he now say this is it? Has he just got one run left in him?
‘Thinking about the future can cause doubts in your own mind, so I’ve not been thinking about that,’ he added.
‘I’ve just been focusing on this game coming up and whatever happens in the future I’ll decide in future.’
And that’s fair. Bale will gain nothing by dealing with hypotheticals until Wales know if they are in Qatar or not.
The 32-year-old will have plenty to mull over this summer, more than just how long he will keep his international football window open.
For one, his Real Madrid contract is up for expiry and that is a divorce that has been on the cards for years. It’s dragged out, but it’s almost done.
Bale has played just two hours for Madrid in the past six months which leaves him at risk of being undercooked for a huge game.
It was Bale’s late goal that kept Euro 2016 qualification hopes alive against Cyprus in 2015
The 32-year-old played an integral role in guiding Wales to the semi-finals of that tournament
Big moments call for big players and he knows the pressure will be on against Austria next
But he consistently transforms into a different player, and crucially a happier person, when he links back up with Wales. All the ails and stresses of life at Real seem to wash themselves away into nearby Cardiff Bay.
‘I’m a fan even when I’m playing and I want to see Wales in a World Cup whether I’m playing or not,’ Bale said. ‘It’s a massively important game and we know that.’
And the Spanish critics that regularly accuse him of cheating Real Madrid of his talents to stay fresh for Wales – Marca ruthlessly labelled him a ‘parasite’ who ‘sucks the blood and gives nothing back’ in a game-day piece on Thursday – Bale couldn’t care less.
‘I don’t listen to any of them,’ he added, ‘it’s a waste of time.’
He has produced heroic moments for the Spanish giants but there must be frustration aplenty when they see Bale roll back the years with the Dragon on his chest.
Bale has been directly involved in more Wales goals than any other player in this 2022 World Cup qualifying run – three goals, three assists.
In fact, across the last three World Cup qualifying campaigns, Bale has been involved in 42 per cent of Wales’ 36 goals, hitting 11 goals and four assists.
Having made his debut in the run-up to the 2006 World Cup, in May 27, 2006, Bale has had to watch on from home as colleagues played in Germany, South Africa, Brazil and most recently in Russia in 2018.
Bale has had great moments, defining moments, and has elevated himself into the pantheon of Welsh greats.
Labelled a ‘parasite’ by Spanish media on the day of the game, his club future is a concern
Manager Carlo Ancelotti does not appear remotely interested in using Bale moving forward
As captain of the team it is on his shoulders to galvanise a rapidly improving young team into one that can banish the ghosts of previous misses and see out two games at home to break the wait for a World Cup return.
Think back to a 2014 World Cup qualifier, similarly in Cardiff, where Wales found themselves 1-0 down with 10 minutes to go.
Up stepped Bale, the first a penalty and then the second a long-range stunner in the last minute to start a party in the capital.
Little will likely touch the heights of helping take Wales to the semi-finals of Euro 2016, a fairytale run that can still reduce Wales fans to tears when footage of that quarter-final against Belgium gets re-run.
And so in many ways it is much like the famous banner he once held: ‘Wales, Golf, Madrid’. Get to a World Cup and it may rank as the proudest achievement of his career.
‘It is a final for us in many respects. We have to win the game and are going to go for it,’ Wales manager Robert Page said of the Austria tie.
‘We have not spoken too much about the importance of it, players know the importance.
‘We don’t need to emphasise it. We have big players who always turn up to the party. We will be fully ready for it.’
The party doesn’t start until Bale walks in and the time is now for the Real man to deliver one of his trademark virtuosos. Rarely has one been needed more.
Bale (second row, third from left) watched from the stands in a key qualifying loss in 2017
Wales’ hopes of getting to Russia were ended in Cardiff by a stubborn Republic of Ireland side
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