By Graham Thomas in Doha
Gareth Bale insists he wants to carry on playing for his country but the real question now is whether his country needs him.
As Wales’ World Cup journey came to an end, Bale and the rest of the squad stood and applauded their fans, packed into a small section behind the goal at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, a venue that holds few memories, only promises of a bright, shiny space-age future.
But what future for this Wales team, their foot soldiers and their decorated generals, following a 3-0 defeat to England and the end of an underwhelming campaign in Qatar.
In the immediate aftermath, Bale, now 33, said he wants to continue and there has been no suggestion from his senior colleagues, Aaron Ramsey, 32 next month, Joe Allen, 32, or 35-year-old Wayne Hennessey that they intend to bring their international days to a close.
But former Wales manager John Toshack always insisted that no player should ever retire from international football – they should be perpetually available – until the manager himself decides it is time to move on.
Bale has looked like a pale imitation, an imposter, of the player who so spectacularly inspired qualification with his efforts against Austria and Ukraine in the play-offs only five months ago.
Page withdrew him from the fray at half-time because of a hamstring strain, but the Los Angeles FC player’s contribution was limited to seven undistinguished touches of the ball, following an equally anonymous performance in the 2-0 defeat to Iran.
⚽️ Gareth Bale says he’ll be available for 🏴 in March.
⚽️ no regrets about World Cup campaign
⚽️ players have given everything
⚽️ emotional applauding fans at the end
⚽️ not the end of an era for 🏴 @BBCSportWales @BBCSport pic.twitter.com/7eZFkTZ8zk
— Carl Roberts (@carltrev) November 29, 2022
There will be no more international football for Wales until March, when the qualifiers begin for the finals of Euro 2024, by which time Bale will be 35.
Is the great talisman of the past decade going to reverse this very recent abrupt decline in his influence?
Is he going to play more matches than the handful he has so far managed in the MLS?
Is he just going to play more golf?
No player has contributed more in a 111 matches in a red shirt than the No.11, or scored more goals (40), or given supporters more hope and belief that the next miraculous moment is just minutes away.
But often a player’s descent can be rapid and almost painful to behold. One minute he is crafting free-kicks of unimaginable precision against shocked Austrians in Cardiff, the next he is prodding the ball over the touchline from a throw-in as fans yearn for another miracle to keep Wales in their first World Cup for 64 years.
A few weeks before departure for Doha, Page had declared – and it appeared a sensible line of argument – there would be no revolution after this tournament, only evolution.
I’m aware it’s vaguely blasphemous, but Wales have tried to pick the 2016 version of Aaron Ramsey and the 2022 version just isn’t working at all.
— Daniel Storey (@danielstorey85) November 25, 2022
He suggested he would have conversations will all his senior players, urging them to stay on and there would be no abrupt regeneration, of the kind overseen by Toshack.
But there is a counter-argument that change is what Wales do need, however painful that may be in its initial phases.
If the fresh ambition – as stated by the players and the manager after this defeat – is to get to the knockout stages of the next tournament – then that team will surely need to be built around Brennan Johnson, Neco Williams, Ethan Ampadu, and Rubin Colwill, with other youngsters waiting in the wings, rather than revolve around Bale, Ramsey, Allen and Hennessey.
In three group stage matches, Wales have looked pedestrian in comparison to their more youthful and dynamic opponents.
They have lacked energy, vibrancy, power, and the confidence of youth that seem to be the common characteristics among teams making an impact here such as the USA, Ghana, Senegal, Spain and Morocco.
They also have a smattering of more experienced players, but should Bale and Ramsey offer those roles they surely have to get themselves fitter and better conditioned, and able to play many more matches for their clubs, than the pitifully few they have managed in 2022.
Page gave a hint that change may now be in the air when he said: “That will happen naturally, when the time is right.
A magical moment that we won’t forget. We’ll never forget it.
— Wales 🏴 (@Cymru) November 29, 2022
“I’m not going to make a call on that right now. We’re going to get home. The good thing is we’ve got games in March, Euro qualifiers, tough games.
“We’ll have a look at the squad, at the players we’ve got and if there are young players out there that we need to push and promote, now’s the time to do it.”
Page insisted he was pleased with Wales’ first-half showing, even though it was almost entirely defensive and they never appeared remotely likely to score the goal they needed for any hope of the miracle they required.
“We were very disciplined in our defending,” he said.
“A very, very good England team didn’t carve us open. I wasn’t worried at all. I was encouraged by our first-half performance.
“The problem we had was within three minutes of the second half we’re two goals down, one a world-class strike, the second we gifted them.
“If you give top teams gifts like that, they take it with both hands. It was so frustrating to find ourselves two-nil down in the first five minutes of the second half and then we had a mountain to climb again.”
I’m gutted to have seen Wales play so badly in this World Cup. But then again I never thought I’d see them at a World Cup at one point. Perspective is important at times like this.
Will be interesting to see how Rob Page evolves the squad in the coming months and years 🏴
— Glen Williams (@GlenWilliams12) November 29, 2022
As for the tournament as a whole, then Page – a pragmatist at heart – believes it was a stepping stone to the next one.
“Overall, the first half, 45 minutes against the USA we were disappointed with. Iran was a write-off for us.
“Of course, we look back with frustration but it is an amazing achievement for that group of players to get here in the first place.
“We build on that. There’s a bigger picture here. We have to put things in perspective.
“We don’t have the pool of players England have got. And I think they’ll go on to do well in the tournament.
“For us, it is an amazing achievement to get here. We have to expose the younger players to these environments and hopefully in future we can continue to qualify.”
That would be a changing of the script after 64 years of World Cup heartbreak. It remains to be seen if it will mean a rapid changing of the guard.