Gareth Bale: Polarising, prolific and just short of Messi and Ronaldo's greatness

Wales forward announced his retirement from football on Monday

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Gareth Bale's announcement Monday that he has retired from football brings down the curtain on a career packed with trophies and highlight reels but also one that leaves the lingering question of whether he truly reached the heights his talent was capable of.

Straight off the bat let's acknowledge that Bale has legitimate claims to being Britain's greatest footballing export. A world-record transfer to Real Madrid in 2013 was earned off the back of a three-year spell at Tottenham Hotspur in which he progressed from timid teenage left-back winless in his first 24 games to swashbuckling forward whose goals took Spurs to the Champions League.

Wales' then-youngest debutant in May 2006 became its undisputed talismanic leader when the principality qualified for Euro 2016, a first major tournament in almost 60 years. He would go on to lead his country to the semi-finals in France as well as qualification for a further two major tournaments, including last year's World Cup in Qatar.

He retires, at age 33, as Wales' all-time top appearance maker and scorer with 41 goals, leaving luminaries such as Ian Rush, Mark Hughes, Ryan Giggs and John Charles trailing in his wake.

YouTube was invented to immortalise players like Bale: The memorable hat-trick in a 4-3 Champions League loss against Inter Milan at the San Siro, a match that still gives Maicon nightmares; the sprint and sumptuous solo to win the Copa del Rey against Barcelona, Marc Bartra still trying to catch up with him nine years later; the outrageous overhead kick against Liverpool which secured a 13th European Cup for Real Madrid.

And yet somehow Bale's feels like a story only half told.

Bale was as polarising as he was prolific, particularly at Real Madrid. In almost any other case, a player who scored over 100 goals, won three La Liga titles and five Champions Leagues - scoring in two of those finals and a penalty in a shootout in another - would be afforded not just cult status but hero worship. Statues have been built for players who achieved much less.

Bale's seemingly never-ending injury problems and the perception he preferred to spend his free time on the golf course rather than immerse himself in Spanish culture irked supporters, but he is by no means the only footballer with a set of clubs who refused to learn the local lingo.

A return to Tottenham on loan for the 2020/21 season only seemed to undermine his achievements during his first spell in North London, despite a return of 16 goals in 34 appearances.

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Few tears were shed by Madridistas when Bale ended his nine-year stay at the club and signed for Los Angeles FC in June 2022, but even his time Stateside feels underwhelming despite helping the club lift the MLS Cup for the first time.

While Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi were breaking records and battling it out each year to be crowned Ballon d'Or winner, Bale, at least for a short period during his time at Madrid, came as close as anyone to challenging their hegemony.

No one is putting Bale on the same pedestal as those two behemoths, but on the next rung down on the ladder of great players, he was easily the equal of Robert Lewandowski, Karim Benzema and Neymar.

Bale's time in football, as a player at least, may be over but the debate over his impact and place in the pantheon of greats is sure to rage on.

Updated: January 10, 2023, 2:18 PM
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