Gareth Bale stepped up when necessary to help send Wales to a first World Cup in 64 years, but his future in the club game remains unclear.
One of the big advantages of being an elite-level footballer is the luxury of choice. For the overwhelming majority of players, a career in professional football is one of insecurity, that the next injury might be the one that brings everything to a complete halt, or that this contract could be the last. But at the top level of the game, years of plump contracts mean financial security and no shortage of offers, even at a point when bodies are starting to resist the punishing physical schedule that the game can push upon them.
In the immediate aftermath of Wales’ 1-0 win against Ukraine in their World Cup play-off match in Cardiff, Gareth Bale was inevitably questioned about his next career move. In some respects, it was a completely understandable question; Bale is a high-profile player whose departure from arguably the highest-profile football club on the planet was always going to draw considerable attention. But it also feels like asking that question at all is almost to misunderstand Bale, his relationship with the game, and his relationship with the Wales national team.
For most top-level players, Gareth Bale’s 2021/22 season would be considered something of a disaster. He only made seven appearances for Real Madrid and his involvement in the Champions League was limited to a couple of cameo appearances against Chelsea and PSG in the knockout stages which totalled just seven minutes on the pitch. The season may have ended with him picking up a fifth winners medal in this competition, but 2018 – when his spectacular overhead kick less than ninety seconds after coming on as a substitute swung the Champions League final against Liverpool decisively in Real’s favour – this was not.
Although only 32 years of age, Bale’s injury record and the untidiness of his last couple of years with Real Madrid have led to speculation that he could retire from the club game altogether. This, we might reasonably assume, was what his post-match interviewer in Cardiff was fishing for, but Bale wasn’t falling for that bait. With a bit of a smile, he acknowledged that talk of his retirement from the game was definitely postponed, but beyond that, nothing. On this of all days, his future within the club game may not have registered at all. Wales, and the prospect of an ambition-fulfilling appearance in the World Cup finals, was likely all that was on his mind. The cheekiness of the smile that accompanied his answer suggested that he might even enjoy keeping people on tenterhooks.
Football’s orthodoxy suggests that Bale will now be looking for ‘one last payday’, but this tends to overlook that in some respects Gareth Bale is a most unorthodox footballer, one who has long seemed to prioritise his own quality of life. It has been suggested that he may drop to the Championship to play for Cardiff City next season. The idea of a five-times Champions League winner choosing to see out his club career at a lower level is increasingly counter-intuitive in a game that increasingly only understands the metrics of medals earned and financial renumeration. But this has to be countered with the emotional pull of the club to Bale. It’s his hometown club in the one-club capital city of Wales, and his uncle Chris Pike made almost 150 appearances for Cardiff between 1989 and 1993. It should be perfectly clear to anyone who’s paid the slightest bit of attention to Bale’s later career that this emotional pull could be strong.
But football’s thinking seems unable to break its own orthodoxy. There has also been talk of him going to play MLS in the United States, or even of playing a season in Saudi Arabia or at Newcastle United, where the oil money would at least comfortably be able to afford his wage demands. You can see how Newcastle could be attracted to the idea, considering the success they had with the signing of Kieran Trippier, another former Spurs player with a few years of La Liga experience behind him. Manchester United will be linked with every player who becomes available this summer, no matter how a bad a fit it might be for either or both parties.
But the betting odds on where Bale might end up next betray the fact that no-one really knows. The rest of the list seems to be speculation based on very little. Spurs are in there, but this doesn’t seem hugely likely considering Antonio Conte’s high-intensity attitude towards player conditioning. Would Bale really want to risk any sort of injury that might jeopardise his place in the team for Qatar? It seems unlikely that he would want to take that gamble, while Swansea City’s place seems somewhat perverse, considering his Cardiff connections, and Southampton’s seems entirely predicated on the fact that he played for them before. No-one really knows, and it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that Bale doesn’t even know yet himself.
The one thing that we can say with a degree of certainty is that he won’t be short of offers. The continuing quality of his left foot (and, in the ever-transactional world of professional football, his marketability) will see to that. But none of this means that he will accept any of these offers. Indeed, it’s not difficult to imagine Bale following what we might call the Pat Jennings route. The former Spurs and Arsenal goalkeeper retired from club football at the end of 1985 – he made his final appearance for Arsenal in January 1986 – but played for Northern Ireland in the 1986 World Cup finals as an unregistered player. At this stage in his career, he could easily be forgiven for thinking that some golf, training with a club to keep himself fit, and throwing himself into a moderate-looking World Cup group from which Wales can definitely qualify might be a better way to spend the first half of next season.