How Gareth Bale united a nation and ignited the Welsh independence movement
Gareth Bale. The greatest player we’ve ever had. The most important we will ever have.
There’s big game players, then there’s Gareth. It’s been said many times before, but it’s worth repeating over and over: when it mattered, he mattered. The San Siro hattrick. Redefining speed in the Copa del Rey final. The winning goals in two Champions League finals, one of them so ridiculously good that I have to re-watch it every few days just to check it was real. A 129th minute cup final equaliser in his final club game. And then in red. The start of dream in Andorra. 1-0 against Belgium. Bordeaux. Demolishing Russia. The don’t-forget-it equaliser against Croatia. Brilliant in Baku. Belarus rescue mission. That goal against Austria. That other goal against Austria. Sixty-four years.
His will be a career indelibly inked into record books and match reports in pages stuffed with remarkable statistics, firsts, bests and tops, but it is a career that bursts from these pages, flowing into the hearts, minds, and souls of every proud Welsh person, words and numbers, no matter how effusive or impressive, far too restrictive to illustrate the impact he had on Cymru. No, his impact can only be truly understood in the sound of history’s shackles hitting the floor in 2015, in the ecstatic relief of the final whistle against Ukraine, from three million demons being exorcised by delirious cheers when that free kick nestled in a Bordeaux net, in our straining GWLAD GWLADs, pulsating seas of red, floods of joyful tears, bucket hats, Waka Waka, limbs, Wales Golf Madrid, “the dragon on my chest”, in Yma O Hyd, and in a nation more sure of itself than ever before.
There are no “what ifs” or “if onlys” haunting this story. He achieved everything he set out to and more. Never has the line “You’re just too good to be true” been more appropriate.
Gareth will be rightly be remembered as having had a significant part to play in the story of our country, so to describe him merely as a footballer seems woefully inadequate. Try icon. National hero. Legend. He was not a political figure, or at least not in an obvious sense.
And yet he was exactly what we needed him to be: he was Welsh first and last. He was, and remains, the totemic figure in the organisation that has played a leading role in driving and reflecting our national consciousness over the last decade, a decade that will no doubt go down in history as a seminal period for Welsh nationhood. An unashamedly Welsh global phenomenon who propelled our Independent Football Nation to unprecedented heights on the world stage, providing confidence and exposure we’d never had before.
He was someone who made you excited to be Welsh. Through the global sport, he provided a means by which those who many never before have felt that dragon roar in their chest could experience Cymru standing equally with other nations; could experience the world looking at us, not “is that part of England?”; who could see our distinct identity and language embraced by a global community, and, as a result of all of this, thought for the first time “I get it now. We are different. We are independent.” In short, he is a figure who united and embodied a country creating itself anew in the wake of a football-fuelled national re-awakening.
The new national movement towards independence is not, of course, the creation of the football team or the FAW. To claim as such would be to ignore the immense effort and good work of many people and organisations over the last few decades, the psychological impact of devolution, the increasingly horrific and shamelessly corrupt Westminster government, and a hundred other socio-political chess pieces moving around the UK and beyond. But football has played a huge part. Football is one of the rare ways in which the economic, cultural, and political differences in our country are bridged and a fiercely proud Cymry have a shared outlet for their shared love. And success brings more attention, more pride, more confidence. When you combine that with the work of the increasingly political left-wing republican fan movement and organising body, you have a recipe to turn the 90 minute patriots into comrades. Football matters.
Football chat is full of stories of by-gone golden eras, tales of great players and iconic moments that can be glimpsed only through your Dad’s memory or grainy sepia footage. But not for us. We lived it. We saw every second of it. We were there breathing the same air, getting drenched by the same rain on that June afternoon. We were there in stadiums, living rooms, and pubs creating memories that will become legends recollected for generations to come. Wherever you were, you were there.
You were part of Y Wal Goch embraced and spurred on by the FAW, driving our national movement forward, culminating in the Yma O Hyd zeitgeist and the accompanying music video that could comfortably double as a Yes Cymru campaign film. This red army, this sleeping superorganism, was awakened by a golden generation of players who brought us the incomparable joy of dreams realised and heights we never imagined, a time of footballing beauty and mesmerizing talent, a time that re-defined many people’s relationship with Cymru, with their language, and with their hopes for the future of both.
And one man stood above all others to make that happen; one man straddled the entire era, from Toshack to Speed to Coleman to Page; one man turned six million ears towards Dafydd Iwan and made three million mouths shout “a bydd iaith Gymraeg yn fyw!”
Kieran Thomas is co-chair of @YesWrecsam
Follow Kieran on Twitter
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