Oh, Gareth Bale, we’ll miss you at the World Cup
Like Indiana Jones staring down at a pit of snakes, Roy Hodgson could be forgiven for rolling onto his back and muttering: “Wales. Why did it have to be Wales?”
Of all the countries where he could’ve been born and raised, Gareth Bale’s parents had to pick one more commonly associated with oval balls rather than round ones. There’s nothing wrong with being born in Wales, of course. The British nation has a long, proud tradition of producing rugby players with walnut-cracking thighs and a remarkable number of fine singers. They can certainly hold a tune in the Welsh valleys. They just can’t hold a football particularly well.
Wales have qualified just once for the World Cup Finals, back in 1958, when Pele was making his mark in a Brazil jersey and Tom Jones was soon to find his in front of a microphone, which gives some indication of where the countries’ respective talents lie. The Welsh reached the quarter-finals in 1958 but went no further – for the next 56 years.
There was always a great Welsh hope to artificially inflate expectations. There was John Toshack, Ian Rush, Mark Hughes, Ryan Giggs, Neville Southall and even Dean Saunders (the Dragons were getting desperate), but they always remained a dashed dream away from perpetual disappointment.
And then the freak showed up.
Designed in Frankenstein’s football lab, Bale was engineered for sporting perfection. Assembled with aesthetic precision, he has the legs of Nijinsky (combining the grace of the Russian ballet dancer with the racehorse’s acceleration), a whale’s lung capacity, the spiritual calm of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and the aw-shucks, self-effacing humility of Clark Kent. Every morning, the world’s most expensive player meets the world’s nicest person in the mirror.
He’s a man-made winner for his club, but a natural-born failure for his country. He made you believe a man could fly in the Copa del Rey and Champions League finals. Real Madrid turned him into Superman, but his passport is kryptonite. He won la decima with Real. He couldn’t win a raffle with Wales.
His Boy’s Own cup final exploits underlined why his unique gifts will be conspicuous by their absence in Brazil. The World Cup will not be quite the same without him. Some say he’s given enough in his first La Liga season and justified his £85 million transfer fee with 21 goals in 32 starts for Los Merengues, along with 16 assists. But this isn’t Oliver Twist. We can always demand more.
The World Cup will miss Bale in the way that modern cinema mostly misses Daniel Day Lewis. The latter pops up only fleetingly to demonstrate his incomparable range of skills and jaw-dropping diversity. He commands our attention like no other. He enthralls. He tantalizes. And he infuriates when he brings his ‘A’ game, picks up his latest Oscar with a genuine air of indifference and then buggers off back to an Italian village to be an apprentice cobbler.
But Day Lewis has at least three golden statuettes in his shoemaker’s cupboard and has been kissed by Michelle Pfeiffer and Cameron Diaz. Bale has none and has been kissed, a number of times in recent weeks, by Luka Modric. He deserves better. As he continues to master his craft in such captivating fashion, he merits a chance to tout his wares on the greatest stage.
Instead the world can only wonder what might have been in the coming weeks. Hodgson certainly will when Wayne Rooney huffs and puffs against Italy. Most of all, Bale will wonder. For years, his countryman Giggs tried to brush off Wales’ inability to qualify for major tournaments. But his c’est la vie attitude was undermined by his eagerness to pull on a Team GB shirt at London 2012 in a competition that couldn’t have been any more Mickey Mouse if Donald and Goofy had played in central defence.
Such disappointment dogged George Best until his death. His famous line about being surrounded by the Sixties’ most swinging supermodels only to be asked ‘where did it all go wrong’ is often repeated, but his World Cup line is less remembered. Despite the booze, the binges, the early retirement and a brief spell in prison, his biggest regret was not making it to the World Cup Finals with Northern Ireland.
Best’s stories often reflected his audience. His point of view varied with the interviewer. His recollection of pivotal moments in his career sometimes depended on which book, DVD or TV show they were appearing in at the time. But he never budged on one issue. His closest contemporaries – Bobby Charlton and Pele – played and won World Cups. He never got close. It always bothered him.
Alfredo di Stefano has pretty much said the same. Real Madrid’s honorary life president also won the European Cup – five times in a row – and represented the countries of Argentina, Colombia and Spain, but still managed to miss out. Now he’s a quirky footnote, a member of an elite club Bale has no interest in joining. He’s in a best XI of World Cup absentees.
Like Best and di Stefano before him, Bale will feature in “what if” discussions all the way until the Rio final. What if Bale had gone to Brazil? What if Bale could do to World Cup defenders what he did to Marc Bartra and Filipe Luis? What if Bale found an English great-grandparent and lost his Welsh accent? With a rueful nod, the winger must accept the hypothetical speculation as an unwanted byproduct of his spectacular club success. But he wouldn’t want to make a career out of it. And nor would we.
In some ways, Bale has unwittingly teased us in a sadistic fashion beyond even Daniel Day Lewis. When the actor goes into self-imposed hibernation, he stays there. He vanishes. The memory fades a little. It becomes harder to miss what you don’t have. But Bale has offered us glimpses of his genius all season long; scene-stealing cameos that obviously belonged in a Brazilian blockbuster.
The finals of the Copa del Rey and the Champions League offered the cruelest reminders of all. Bale produced two terrific trailers for a potential masterpiece that will not be coming to a World Cup screen near you.
Neil Humphreys is the best-selling author of football novels Match Fixer and Premier Leech, which was the FourFourTwo Football Novel of the Year. You can find his website right here.