2022 saw Gareth Bale’s heroism turn to legend as his free kick helped fire Wales into their first World Cup in 64. Not since 1958, when Brazil would make our hearts break, had Wales been seen on the world stage. 2016 and 2021 saw Y Dreigiau appear in the European Champions, incredibly reaching the semi-finals in 2016 but a FIFA World Cup appearance escaped them for so long.
That was until the fairy-tale of Ukraine came to an end from a calamitous own goal. The war torn country watched in horror as the ball sailed into the net. While in the grand scheme of things losing a football game isn’t the end of the world, with their current situation a win would have provided a well needed boost to a country down on its luck.
However, for Wales fans who have dreamed about seeing their club in a World Cup, the opponents on the day did not matter. Once the final whistle had blown, a sense of relief around the stadium was replaced immediately by an unrelenting sense of joy – Wales were in the FIFA World Cup.
And while it was a team effort, and the stars on the day were Wayne Hennessey and Ben Davies, it was Gareth Bale’s day. It was on his back that Wales were carried, supported by a talented midfield spine of Aaron Ramsey and Joe Allen, to unprecedented success that the country had never seen before, and likely never will again.
Prior to the rise of the ex-Real Madrid star to Welsh talisman, qualifying for a major tournament seemed but a dream for the plucky nation of Wales. Legends of the past like Ian Rush, Mark Hughes, Ryan Giggs and Craig Bellamy all failed in their quest to play at a tournament finals. Neville Southall never tasted the highest level of international football, and even John Charles only played at one major tournament.
Gareth Bale is about to enter his third. Alongside fellow Wales legends like Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen and Wayne Hennessey, he has achieved more than any Welshman before him and more than anyone ever expected of this plucky little nation of Rugby Fans.
The impact on his country cannot be stated. He has achieved so much for Wales that football has overtaken rugby as the sport of choice for the first time in history. Gareth Bale has turned a nation over to football which is something nobody in the country could ever have dreamed of.
He is the greatest player Wales has, or ever will, have. Nobody will have the impact the boy from Whitchurch made on his country, and the day he hangs up his boots (likely after the 2022 World Cup) will be a day of mourning in Wales.
But is he the greatest British player in the 21st century?
Greatest British Football Player
For my money, Gareth Bale is the greatest British footballer of the 20th century. Nobody in the Scotland or Irish teams can touch him, although Robbie Keane would be the closest (Ireland is not part of the UK, but Keane is just used as an example). However, while Keane had an exemplary scoring record for his country, he did not have the silverware Gareth Bale has in his trophy cabinet.
While many British players can boast winning the Premier League and maybe a Champions League title, that is not enough. Gareth Bale, while light in the Premier League winners medal department, won his medals playing for the biggest club in the world – Real Madrid.
With Los Blancos, the Welsh legend won three La Liga titles and an incredible five Champions League medals. He was instrumental in four of those and scored the winner in two finals – including a bicycle kick against Liverpool in 2018 which is the greatest goal in Champions League final history.
English legends like Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney only have one champions league a piece, while Paul Scholes can boast two victories (1999 and 2008), as can Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville. However, Giggs is below Bale in the best Wales players list, and Neville for all his talent is simply not on his level.
Paul Scholes would be the closest to Gareth Bale in terms of trophy cabinet out of British players of the 21st century. However, a good chunk of Scholes trophies came in the 1990s, when Manchester United dominated the early days of the Premier League. While it may not be fair to count these as part of this article, it’s worth thinking about in this context.
Paul Scholes won 11 Premier League titles, an outrageous number of trophies. This he does have over Bale, who only has three La Liga titles and zero Premier Leagues to his name (although playing for Spurs will do that to you).
However, if you look at International football, then Bale pulls away from Scholes. Paul Scholes had a patchy England career, where he wasn’t utilised properly by England managers and never found the influence on the game that he did for Manchester United. He retired after a short seven year career, unfulfilled and disappointed.
Gareth Bale however managed to drag Wales into their greatest results ever. He helped Wales, a team mostly comprised with Championship players mixed with a smattering of Premier League players, to three major tournaments including their first World Cup in 64 years.
As an unashamed Welshman who is enamoured by such a player as Gareth Bale, there is no-one greater in the 21st century for Wales. You can argue that Rooney scored more goals, Giggs won more and Terry lead his side like no-one else. But Bale made a country believe and inspired a nation to throw down the egg and pick up a round ball.
That is his greatest accomplishment. Serves the Welsh Rugby Union right for being so arsey about the Millennium Stadium.