By David Williams
Gareth Bale’s decision to end his playing career – announced on Monday evening – brings to an end one of the greatest careers in Welsh sport.
In recognition of his status, teammates, clubs, coaches and fans were quick to express their admiration for arguably the greatest Welsh footballer of all time.
Bale said he had decided to end his playing career at the age of 33, having reached exceptional milestones in both club and international football.
He played a Wales record 111 games for his country and was a five-time Champions League winner with Real Madrid.
He inspired Wales to the semi finals of Euro 2016, the last 16 of Euro 2020, before leading the country in its first FIFA World Cup since 1958 last November in Qatar.
“The highest of highs over 17 seasons, that will be impossible to replicate, no matter what the next chapter has in store for me.”
Bale started his senior career at then-Championship side Southampton, who introduced the 16-year-old to professional football before he moved to Tottenham Hotspur a year later.
After six seasons and nearly 150 appearances in the Premier League, Bale was signed by Real Madrid for a fee reported as a world record of €100 million.
In 2013-14, his first season in Spain, Bale helped Real Madrid to their 10th Champions League trophy, awaited by the club for more than 10 years.
He made 12 appearances and scored six goals in the triumphant campaign, including in the 4-1 final win over Atletico Madrid.
“From my very first touch at Southampton to my last with LAFC and everything in between, shaped a club career that I have an immense pride and gratitude for,” Bale added.
“Playing for and captaining my country 111 times has truly been a dream come true.”
The player released a separate statement to bid farewell to the Welsh fans and team, saying his decision to retire from international football had been “by far the hardest of my career.”
“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 said.
“I am honored 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 (we) have been to unexpected and amazing places.
“I shared a dressing room with boys that became brothers, and back room staff that became family.”
Bale became Wales’ youngest player when he made his debut as a substitute at the age of 16 years and 315 days old against Trinidad & Tobago in May 2006.
JHe remains the team’s all-time top scorer with 41 goals.
He captained Wales in their first European Championship in 2016, making the semi finals, and helped them qualify again for Euro 2020, before qualifying for the World Cup to end a 64-year wait.
The 33-year-old, who in Qatar became Wales’ most-capped player in their second group game against Iran, vowed to keep playing for the national team amid doubts over his future after Rob Page’s men were knocked out with a 3-0 defeat to England.
“I don’t think it will be the last time you see him in a Wales jersey,” Wales coaches Page said after their elimination.
Both the national side and clubs Bale played for praised his trophy-laden career.
“Our Captain. Our Hero,” said the FAW in a spree of tweets, quoting his words — “The dragon on my shirt is all I need” — in one of them.
Real Madrid, where he spent nine years and won 19 trophies, including three La Liga titles and one Copa del Rey, passed on their “gratitude, admiration and affection to a great legend of our club and of world football.”
“Individually, (Bale) was named Player of the Year at the 2018 Champions League final and won the Golden Ball at the 2018 Club World Cup,” the club added.
“He was born to play for Spurs,” Tottenham, where Bale earned his international recognition, said on Twitter.
Southampton and Los Angeles FC, where he started and ended his playing career, respectively, joined the messages of gratitude.
“Here’s to you, @GarethBale11. Congratulations on an incredible career,” Southampton tweeted.
“Forever a champion. Forever a legend. Forever Black & Gold. Congrats on a historic career, @GarethBale11,” LAFC said.