He was branded a "traitor", as "monstrously ungrateful" by the club who had employed him for several years. He had been written off as a lost cause. And yet, when he put on his national team jersey, the anxieties and the injuries appeared to fade away. He seemed inspired.
So it was with Brazil’s Ronaldo when he went to the first World Cup staged in Asia, with a scratchy pair of domestic seasons for Inter Milan behind him, an apparently chronic set of fitness problems trailing him. He ended up as the leading goalscorer at the 2002 tournament, won that year’s Ballon D’Or, and after he joined Real Madrid from an angry Inter later in the summer, you could barely avoid seeing his beaming, toothy smile as his career resurrected.
World Cups can act as exhilarating medicine for a footballer’s professional lifespan, and with the qualification of Wales for a finals for the first time in 64 years comes a reminder of how national service contrasts with everyday form. The 2022 Welsh equivalent to Brazil’s Ronaldo of 2002 is easily identified: as the captain who broke the long Wales drought, Gareth Bale has added to his status as their chief figurehead.
Almost inevitably, it was from Bale’s free-kick, deflected, that Wales scored the goal against Ukraine in Sunday’s play-off final to clinch their place at Qatar. It was Bale’s two goals against Austria that won the semi-final, and Bale’s hat-trick, including a stoppage-time winner, that earned the three points in Belarus to help edge Wales into the play-off lane.
That’s six crucial interventions this season without which Wales would be counting up wearily to 66 years absent from World Cups.
Eight days before what Bale called “the final piece of the jigsaw” for his generation of Welsh footballers, he had added to his list of honours a fifth Champions League title with Real Madrid. But his contribution to Madrid’s achievement, sealed with victory in the final against Liverpool, is a very small piece indeed of his club’s 2021-22 Liga and European Cup double jigsaw.
Bale, whose nine years at Madrid ends this month with him relinquishing his place at the top of the club’s payroll, was on the field for seven minutes in the entire Champions League campaign. He started four matches in the Spanish league, three of them prior to September. He played just 290 minutes of his club’s 56 competitive games.
In the same period he was in action, across his country’s nine official fixtures, for 398 minutes. That imbalance led to Bale being pilloried in some Spanish media, called a "parasite" in one newspaper. The catchphrase ‘Wales, Golf, Madrid, In That Order’ has come to represent the player’s perceived priorities.
Bale would quietly point out that between his joining Madrid for what was then a world record fee in 2013 and coming off the bench to score two excellent goals for them in the 2018 Champions League final, a 3-1 win over Liverpool, he earned superstar billing at the Bernabeu and his overall legacy there is superb.
Injuries have hampered him in the last two seasons, as they did Brazil’s Ronaldo at Inter, where he played a full 90 minutes just twice in the club season ahead of his stellar 2002 World Cup. He, like Bale, was fiercely criticised by Italian media for prioritising his national and his own interests.
The difference is that Ronaldo played for a country accustomed to winning World Cups. He counted Rivaldo and Ronaldinho as Brazil teammates. Bale’s nearest peer for Wales is Aaron Ramsey, formerly of Arsenal, and perhaps his closest friend in the squad is goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey, outstanding against Ukraine.
Lately they have, like Bale, been far more conspicuous for their country than their clubs. Ramsey, 31, whom Juventus - where he has one year left on his contract - are seeking to release, started a mere four matches for Glasgow Rangers in a six-month loan that began in January. Hennessey played only three times for his club, Burnley, in their relegation season.
Bale, 32, and Ramsey are now listening to offers for where to spend the next club season. They know their next employers - Championship Cardiff City are interested - will likely be of a lower calibre than Madrid or Juventus.
Over the coming months, Wales’s big-game heroes will be pacing themselves - expect some signs of Welsh fatigue in Wednesday's Nations League meeting with Holland - with the World Cup in mind. November 21, the opening group match against the USA, is the key date in Bale, Ramsey and Hennessey’s diaries.