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How Gareth Bale changed Wales

09 Jan 2024 7 minute read
Gareth Bale celebrates with teammates after Wales qualify for Euro 2020 (Credit: PA)

Leon Barton

A year ago, the greatest sportsperson ever to hail from Wales (don’t @ me) Gareth Bale hung up his boots.

Obviously there was a tidal wave of tributes from his homeland, with the gushing praise contrasting somewhat with the more subdued reaction coming out of England and (especially) Spain.

My friend Andy was the only Welsh person I know to express a certain level of disappointment, bemoaning that Bale didn’t go on to become a Maradona/ Messi/Pele type of figure; a global sporting icon.

This was what he fully expected to happen when Bale was tearing it up as a youngster at Spurs. In the midst of soaking up all the tributes, Andy’s comments bummed me out a bit because it was hard to disagree; in world football terms, Bale was never a Pele or a Messi.

But then I realised something which lifted my spirits: Rather than to the sport of football, Bale’s legacy is actually greater because it lies with his nation. And when I say that, everybody immediately knows which nation I’m referring to, and it most certainly isn’t ‘The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’.

I recently listened to Louis Theroux interview Cardiff-born investigative journalist Jon Ronson on his Grounded podcast. When Theroux gently teased him over his lack of a Welsh accent (‘you must be the least Welsh Welshman!’), Ronson replied that his ‘memory of Cardiff, growing up back in the Seventies, I think it had a bit of an identity crisis. It didn’t know if it wanted to be Welsh or English. Cardiff didn’t feel particularly Welsh when I was growing up’.

With that in mind, it’s significant that the first Welsh superstar of the post-devolution era also hails from the Welsh capital. And there’s never been any hint of an identity crisis when it comes to Gareth Frank Bale.

Wales’ Gareth Bale (left) celebrates after scoring the equaliser against the USA. Photo Nick Potts PA Images

“How do I describe what being a part of this country and team means to me? How do I articulate the impact it has had on my life? How do I put into words the way I felt every single time I put on that Welsh shirt? My answer is that I couldn’t possibly do any of those things justice simply with words” he wrote in his impassioned send off to his nation upon his retirement.

“The fortune of being Welsh and being selected to play for and captain Wales has given me something incomparable to anything else I’ve experienced” he went on.

“I’m honoured and humbled to have been able to play a part in the history of this incredible country, to have felt the support and passion of the Red Wall and together have been to unexpected and amazing places. I shared a dressing room with boys that became brothers and backroom staff that became family.

“I played for the most incredible managers and felt the undying support and love from the most dedicated fans in the world. Thank you to every one of you for being on this journey with me. So for now I am stepping back but not away from the team that lives in me and runs through my veins after all the dragon on my shirt is all I need.”

Goosebumps. Truly, we’ve never had a player like him.

As great as John Charles was, you only need to contrast Bale’s 111 caps and 41 goals with Charles’s 38/15 to see clearly who had the greater impact at international level. Yes, his clubs in Italy would often refuse to release him for Wales, but that’s kind of the point.

We share Charles with Juventus just as we share Rush with Liverpool, Southall with Everton, Giggs with Manchester United and so on. Real Madrid don’t want Bale. That’s fine – he’s ours anyway.

That so many outside of Cymru didn’t ‘get’ him and what he means to us just increases this feeling.

People such as London-based sports journalist Kevin Mitchell who in the Guardian five years ago described him as ‘top knot idiot’, in a piece which then – ludicrously – compared him with Prince Andrew.

Mitchell’s article was an indication of how much the Welsh are still fair game. There is no way any editor would allow a piece describing Bobby Charlton as a “baldy bellend” or Kenny Dalglish as a “ginger knob” anywhere near publication but when it comes to Wales’ greatest player… call him whatever you want Kev.

Also in The Guardian in 2019, their star football journalist Barnay Ronay asked “has there ever been a more forgettable unforgettable career?” which to me and every other Wales fan – all of whom have a showreel of Bale highlights on rotation in our heads (Scotland 2012, Iceland 2013, Andorra 2014, Israel, Belgium, Cyprus 2015, Slovakia 2016, Austria 2022 etc) – appeared a slightly odd question to say the least.

It should also be pointed out that Gareth Bale is – by a distance – the most famous Welsh person to ever exist.

Those who talk of Tom Jones, Catherine Zeta Jones, Anthony Hopkins or Dylan Thomas as holding that title are conflating “World famous” with “famous in the USA”, which are two very different things.

For every person in China, Chad or Chile who’s heard of Tom Jones, there will be dozens – hundreds, probably thousands – who know of Bale.

Sociologist David Goldblatt isn’t exaggerating when he describes football in the 21st century as ‘the biggest cultural phenomenon the world has ever known’.

As a little example of this, I gave a talk about my Mum’s home city of Liverpool in my German class a little while back. A classmate of mine – a Chinese woman in her twenties – knew of Liverpool and Everton FC but had never heard of the Beatles. ‘The only western musician who’s known in China is Celine Dion” she said (yes, I was surprised too).

Gareth Bale shoots at goal during the FIFA World Cup Qualifier against Austria. Photo Nick Potts PA Images

Wrap your heads around that one folks; In the world’s most populous country Everton FC (and Celine Dion) are more famous than The Beatles.

Mitchell’s “top knot idiot” comment was part of a piece in which he bemoaned Bale’s lack of political awareness but the entire article missed the point. Without the man himself taking an interest in politics,

Bale is a political figure in Wales, if only for the simple fact that he has never once referred to himself as British and chose to play pre-season friendlies for Spurs than play for Great Britain at the 2012 Olympics.

This, of course, led to the classic “said he had a bad back” chant, probably the most popular Welsh football chant of all time.

He might not speak Welsh but he fully embraced the connection between the language and the national football team – belting out the chorus of Yma O Hyd alongside Dafydd Iwan, wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with “diolch” – and in doing so has become an unambiguously Welsh figure.

As Super Furry Animals frontman Gruff Rhys pointed out, Bale was not only “pushing beyond reality on the pitch but was also a transformative footballer culturally. In 2022 seeing a galactico sing Yma O Hyd with Dafydd Iwan was in the realm of science fiction” before adding that such a scene was “unimaginable back in the 20th century”.

If we take on board the oft-stated theory that ‘politics lies downstream from culture’ then Gareth Bale is already one of the most important political figures that Wales has ever produced.

Put that in your pipe Kevin Mitchell.

Wales’ greatest female footballer Jess Fishlock (another Cardiffian) summed it up to perfection in her tribute. “Gareth Bale really was World Class. In every single possible way. Then decided to take his national team and Wales as a country along for the ride. What a man. Build a Statue”.

Yn hollol.

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6 months ago

Kevin Mitchell is living proof that non-Welsh people will probably never grasp his importance to us, and I don’t care… Bale is ours, and ours alone. The joy that man brought into my life, after supporting Wales through the dark days of Bobby Gould and all that, is immeasurable really.

And BTW you don’t need a Welsh accent to be Welsh; how tired have I grown of explaining this to the clueless…

Iwan Cruyff
Iwan Cruyff
6 months ago

Excellent article – gwych!

6 months ago

You can catch Leon regularly on the first and longest-running podcast about the national team: Podcast Pêl-droed. On Googler, Apple, Spotify, Podbean and more

6 months ago

He’s Welsh, so being looked down on is to be expected. All Welsh sports stars are torn asunder after they retire and claimed to be overrated. You have it with Calzague, Giggs, Edwards etc. The difference with Bale is they started doing it while he was still playing. And I’m adamant he retired due to the unfair pressure and critism from the outside world. For example, I was once watching one of his games for Madrid and when he scored I noticed someone in the crowd giving him an up yours sign, or the Spanish equivalent. Why would Madrid Fans… Read more »

Cwm Rhondda
Cwm Rhondda
6 months ago

Viva Gareth Bale

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