Football is not the national sport of Wales, rugby is.
But since Gareth Bale became a global star, more and more Welsh people have become devoted football fans.
Bale put Welsh football on the map and turned a team - which until then had hardly done anything significant - into a force to be reckoned with.
With all due respect to his glorious club career, and especially winning five European Champions Cups in Real Madrid's uniform - for Bale, the most important thing in his career was to wear the shirt with the dragon on the chest.
It's no coincidence that he wrote in his farewell speech: "The decision to retire from international football was the hardest I've made in my career, and by far. How can I explain the meaning of being part of the Wales team, being part of this country? How can I describe the impact of all this on my life? The truth is that there is no Words that could describe it."
The chosen one above all, photo: AP
Bale was born in Cardiff and at the age of 16 he joined Southampton's senior team.
After a month and a half he was already playing in the national team of Wales - the youngest in history.
Bale played 17 years in the national uniform, and in his 111 games he scored 41 goals.
He is also the all-time record in the number of appearances and of course also in the number of conquests.
Bale was the driving force behind the team that stunned the world at Euro 2016. Just qualifying was considered a huge achievement, as it was the first major tournament Wales had qualified for in 58 years.
But to reach the semi-finals?
It was already above and beyond all dreams.
The success story did not end there.
Wales also qualified for Euro 2020 and then for the World Cup in Qatar - the first World Cup in 64 years.
And the qualification came thanks to Bale's winning goal, in the playoff against Ukraine, which caused an unprecedented outburst of emotions in the picturesque country in western Britain.
— Gareth Bale (@GarethBale11) January 9, 2023
The Wales team has always been important to Bale, but in recent years much more so.
Especially when Real Madrid stopped counting him.
But it wasn't always like that.
Real Madrid bought him in 2013 from Tottenham for 100 million euros, which was then a world record.
And his success in the "Blancos" uniform was immediate.
Already in his first season he starred and scored in two major finals: the victory over Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final and the victory over Atlético Madrid in the Champions League final.
In his seven seasons at Real, he scored 106 goals and assisted another 67 in 258 games and won no less than 15 titles.
No other British footballer has won the Champions Trophy 5 times.
Put Wales on the map, photo: AFP
And just to understand how huge he was, Bale won more titles in Real Madrid than Zinedine Zidane, scored more goals than Ronaldo (the Brazilian) and has more assists than David Beckham.
Ups and downs at Real Madrid
Ups and downs at Real Madrid
In the summer of 2017, Bale extended his contract for another 5 years for a salary of 35 million euros per year.
In the next two years, he justified the amount, especially when he scored a brace in the 2018 Champions League final against Liverpool.
But a year later he was injured, lost his place in the team - and also the trust of coach Zinedine Zidane, who really wanted him to leave.
Comunicado Oficial: despedida de @GarethBale11. #RealMadrid
— Real Madrid CF (@realmadrid) January 9, 2023
Only Real could not sell Bale.
No team was willing to pay the fat salary, which he was not willing to give up.
Real fans and the Madrid media began to descend on him, sometimes excessively.
Bale was loaned to Tottenham for one season - but he did not give up his salary at Real until the last day of the contract, in June 2022.
True, he played a lot of golf, but what really kept him going all that time was the ambition to play in the World Cup.
And that's why instead of retiring he decided to move to play for Los Angeles FC.
Gareth Bale celebrates Wales' equalizer in the last World Cup, photo: Reuters
The goal was one: to keep fit for the World Cup.
Only without intending to, he scored a dramatic goal in the MLS Cup final and led his team (in which he played 12 games) to winning the prestigious title.
Bale fulfilled his big dream.
He played in the World Cup.
And even scored Wales' only goal in Qatar, in a 1:1 draw with the USA.
Definitely not a missed career, photo: AP
Some would say that Gareth Bale wasted the last few years of his career.
who retired too early.
But the truth is that he fulfilled all his dreams, had an amazing career, is the greatest Wales player of all time, and also one of the greatest Britons ever.
And it is only thanks to him that today in Cardiff there are more children who like football than rugby.
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