It was a moment that Welsh football had dreaded for what felt like an age, an impending inevitability that a nation had put to the back of its mind lest it might come true.
And yet, when it finally arrived, Gareth Bale’s retirement announcement was still a shock of seismic proportions. It was a day Wales could see coming – but not so soon.
Speculation over Bale’s future had raged for years, dominating the later stages of his glittering career at Real Madrid and following him in the last two major tournaments with Wales.
Optimists clung to the fact that he left the World Cup with a vow that he would ‘keep going for as long as I can and as long as I’m wanted’. Some dreamed that it might even have gone on forever; there were times when he seemed immortal.
But there is no escape time. While 33 might be a relatively young age to retire, Bale was showing signs of slowing down as his body bore the price of a superhuman 17-year career.
Logic suggested that day would come but, again, Bale continued to defy logic to conjure up moments of magic even as he seemed to lose some of his former powers.
His retirement not only marks the end for the best player Wales has ever produced, but also the beginning of the end of the greatest era in the country’s footballing history.
Bale lifted Wales to new heights, epitomizing his country’s rise from humble underachievers to major tournament regulars.
In doing so, he transcended his sport, a phenomenal athlete whose global fame brought Wales to the world’s attention.
Quantifying such an impact is a near impossible task and, while summing up Bale’s career in numbers and achievements is reductive, they bear repeating.
Real Madrid made him the most expensive footballer in the world when they bought him from Tottenham for £85million in 2013 and, during nine years in Spain, he scored over 100 goals to help Real to win five Champions League and three La Liga. securities.
His trophy cabinet also includes a plethora of individual accolades, such as two PFA Player of the Year awards and the Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year.
Then there is Bale’s unrivaled career in Wales, ending as his country’s all-time leading men’s goalscorer with 41 goals in 111 appearances, another men’s national record.
As impressive as all these feats are, they are only part of Bale’s story. You had to watch him in action to truly appreciate his genius.
Bale was more than a movie lead character in his successful career; he was the man who kept writing his own barely plausible scripts and, most amazing of all, kept bringing them to life with displays of otherworldly powers.
To rewatch the showreels of his goals for Tottenham is to be mesmerized by a heady cocktail of supreme athleticism, mazy dribbling and extravagant long-range shooting.
At Real Madrid, his goals were as impressive as they were important, from the audacious run from his own half in the 2014 Copa del Rey final win over Barcelona to the jaw-dropping kick against Liverpool that helped clinch the victory in 2018. Champions League final, one of the greatest goals in the history of the competition.
And yet, for all the golden glory of his club achievements, Bale was arguably at his most heroic when playing for Wales.
Having made his debut as a 16-year-old in 2006, Bale endured a grueling introduction to international football as Wales fell outside the top 100 in the world rankings as recently as 2011.
But as the figurehead of his country’s golden generation, alongside Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen, Bale propelled Wales to stratospheric new heights.
He was their top scorer in Euro 2016 qualifying – ending a 58-year absence from major tournaments – and produced a string of stellar displays in France as Wales reached a first semi-final historical.
After captaining Wales until qualification for the next European Championship – where they again reached the round of 16 – Bale then led his country to its holy grail, a first World Cup since 1958 .
His evolution as a player during this period illustrated what a singular and transformative talent Bale was.
As his fearsome pace and direct run tormented his opponents on the way to Euro 2016, Bale had to adapt to life without these physical weapons six years later, but still possessed the unique quality required to score all three. Wales goals as they beat Austria and Ukraine will finally qualify for the World Cup.
As disappointing as Wales were when they exited last year’s tournament in the group stage, it was fitting that Bale’s last goal for his country would turn out to be Wales’ first in a FIFA Cup. world since 1958.
Like his team-mates, coaches and fans, Bale was deflated by Wales’ performances in Qatar and, as he waved goodbye to the fans after the loss to England, there was the feeling that a final farewell loomed on the horizon.
Over time, this desperation will dissipate. Bale can look back with pride on the pivotal role he played in leading Wales to a first World Cup in 64 years.
The same goes for his move to Real Madrid. A resentful end will fade from memory as he looks back on nine trophy-laden years in Spain that made him Britain’s most successful footballing export of all time.
More important for Bale, however, will be his legacy with Wales.
Club football may be the dominant form of the sport but, for Bale, there was nothing better than representing his country.
After scoring his spectacular spot-kick in Real Madrid’s Champions League final victory over Liverpool in 2018, his first thought after the final whistle was to grab the Welsh flag and drape it around his shoulders. as he walked around the field for a lap of honor.
A year later, after being slammed by fans and the media in Spain for a perceived lack of commitment as he struggled with injuries, Bale further angered them, saying: “I definitely got a bit more excitement to play for Wales.”
It was nothing compared to the furor in Madrid when, after sealing Euro 2020 qualification, Bale was pictured laughing next to his Wales team-mates who were holding a banner that read: “Country Wales. Golf. Madrid. In that order.”
It was effectively the end of his increasingly strained relationship with Real but, for Wales fans, it only increased the appeal of their hero, an unapologetic Welsh champion .
Few people, sporting or otherwise, have done more to raise Wales’ profile around the world than Bale.
As he announced his retirement on Monday, it was telling that Bale penned a separate message for his country.
“I shared a dressing room with boys who became brothers and backroom staff who became family,” he said.
“I’ve played for the most incredible managers and felt the undying support and love of the most dedicated fans in the world. Thank you to each and every one of you for taking this journey with me.
“So for now I’m taking a step back but not far from the team that lives inside me and runs through my veins after all the dragon on my shirt is all I need.”
There are players who can inspire teams, others who can carry them to glory and fewer still are those who become synonymous with their clubs or countries.
Few can claim to define a nation for an entire generation.
But Bale can.