The infamous flag read “Wales, golf, Madrid, in that order". It did not escape attention in the Spanish capital, or in Marca, the newspaper most associated with Real Madrid, that Gareth Bale declared himself unfit for Sunday’s Clasico defeat to Barcelona but that his back pain did not prevent him from training with Wales. The expectation is he will face Austria on Thursday evening.
Bale’s priorities have long been questioned at a club where he has won four Champions Leagues. In some respects, he ranks as Britain’s most successful ever footballing export. And yet he may regard his defining achievements as those in his country’s colours. Wales were semi-finalists in Euro 2016, Bale turning their first major tournament in 58 years into the greatest in their history.
Now he is eyeing a crowning glory. Wales’ lone World Cup was ended by a quarter-final defeat inflicted by Pele and Brazil. It was in 1958. Real won their third European Cup that year. They have secured a further 10 since. That Wales have not returned to the World Cup indicates what a historic feat it would be if Bale could lead them past Austria and then either Scotland or Ukraine in June.
Mathematically, anyway, they stand a one in four chance. Perhaps it is their best opportunity in 28 years: Paul Bodin’s infamous missed penalty in their last group game allowed Romania to instead qualify for the 1994 World Cup, beat Argentina and reach the quarter-finals.
Some of that Welsh side, from Ryan Giggs to Ian Rush to Neville Southall, figured in the various hypothetical teams of the best players to miss out on various World Cups. So, later, did Bale. He finished 12th in the Ballon d’Or voting in 2014: the 11 ahead of him each had a World Cup to bolster their case. In 2018, when Bale scored a spectacular overhead kick in the Champions League final, no one got more votes without playing in the tournament.
Now his days among the world’s finest are in the past. He is unwanted at Real, loaned out last season, limited to 267 minutes in La Liga and four in the Champions League by a mixture of injury and managerial choice. But at the tail of his career comes the chance for Wales’ record scorer to add to his legacy with his country.
Bale has lost some of his dynamism but his hat-trick away in Belarus was an example of a champion player winning a game by force of personality. He delivered the inviting cross for Dan James’ decider against the Czech Republic, which ultimately meant Wales finished ahead of their victims.
Now for Austria, who share certain similarities. Their exile from the World Cup is lengthy, albeit only since 1998, and they look to a Real player for inspiration, though David Alaba is a regular at the Bernabeu, nearer his peak and arguably benefits from a better supporting cast.
That Wales are without Kieffer Moore, Tyler Roberts and David Brooks exacerbates the importance of the old firm of Bale and Aaron Ramsey. They have 56 international goals; the rest of the squad have 19.
For both, this is the last chance: they played in qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup and it is implausible they will figure in the 2026 tournament. Their exploits in Euro 2016, in particular, give them a case to be ranked as Wales’ two greatest players.
Much of Bale’s purpose seems to come from international football: while others retire from it to concentrate on the club game, he barely features for Real and is a talisman for Wales. Now he needs to summon two more colossal displays to take them to Qatar and keep him off the golf course.