The first thing to say following Gareth Bale’s retirement from football is a heartfelt diolch yn fawr to the man who is inarguably Cymru’s greatest footballer of all time (which currently amounts to 698 international matches spread across 146 years). He won a record number of caps (111), scored a record number of goals (41) and was absolutely instrumental, often single-handedly, in qualification for two consecutive Euros and then, in a glorious swansong, the Holy Grail of the World Cup following a 64 year absence that had seemed as if it would never end. It is no exaggeration to state that, had this once-in-a-lifetime, irrepressible, inspirational football genius not been bestowed on Cymru by the accident of birth then those interminable decades of defeat, disillusionment and despair would be continuing indefinitely into the future. Manager Rob Page is spot on when he calls for a statue in Bale’s honour in Cardiff – after all, he has done more for the profile, visibility and identity of Wales than anyone since, hmm, let’s think, Owain Glyndŵr…?
Page and the FAW have quite rightly offered Bale a place in the Cymru set-up in any capacity that suits him, if only to keep him involved and perhaps impart some of his motivational magic to young players coming through. Whether he is interested or not remains to be seen. He’s got a lot to think about, and what’s the hurry?
The options for footballers when they metaphorically hang up those proverbial boots depend first and foremost on their finances. For the average pro or semi-pro who plied his trade moving around the workaday ranks of ordinary clubs this means finding some sort of a job to bring home the bacon. But the tiny minority of players who operated in the rarefied environments of the obscenely wealthy ‘elite’ clubs actually never need to work again. Bale, who has been harvesting huge earnings for the best part of 15 years, ends his playing days with an astronomical £120million sitting in the bank and a £4million mansion in the Tory Vale of Glamorgan (Ystradowen, near Cowbridge, if you must know) which boasts a full-size three-hole golfcourse on its rolling acres where the holes are precise replicas of three of golf’s most famous holes (the 17th at Sawgrass, the 8th at Troon and the 12th at Augusta, if you must know). He has a loving wife and four young children (childhood sweetheart Emma plus Alba, Nava, Axel, and Xander, if you must know), a growing business portfolio of ‘Sports Bars’ in the “hospitality industry” (Elevens Bar & Grill in Castle Street and Par 59 in St Mary Street, if you must know), and a supportive, devoted mother and father a few miles away in the Whitchurch house where he grew up (Velindre Road, if you must know). All in all, this means that smiley, nice, squeaky-clean, wholesome family man and national hero Gareth can more or less do whatever he likes for the rest of his life. Three thoughts pop immediately into my mind: firstly, hasn’t he done well for himself! secondly, what hides behind that too-good-to-be-true veneer? and thirdly, how long do you give it? But then I’m a cynical, disenchanted pessimist with Marxist leanings and a chip on my shoulder the size of, um, er, um, the size of a rather large chip – so don’t listen to me for heaven’s sake!
He might just want to spend a couple of years perfecting his swing, reducing his 2 handicap down to the zero handicap level of a pro-golfer, and then embarking on a thrilling second sporting life striding through manicured landscapes while trying to get small spheres into a hole in the ground with a stick. Golfers are the opposite of footballers, at 33 they are just warming up, they can keep going beyond 50! He was always a sporty lad, since his days at Eglwys Newydd Primary School; he would love it.
Or he might have a go at coaching with a longer-term view of going into soccer management. He would firstly need the coaching badge and luckily the FAW coaching course and system is recognised as being one of the best in Europe. This couldn’t be more convenient, since the FAW itself has now relocated from a shed on a trading estate in the particulate-soaked arse end of Splott and is now headquartered in the swish and vulgar Vale Pavilion complex of the Vale Resort at Hensol near Pontyclun – within walking distance of Gareth’s gaff in the Vale! How handy! A couple of years living the life of Riley in the lap of luxury while getting a qualification: sounds like an idea.
Perhaps he will follow the well-trodden path resorted to by many a retired big name and give punditry a whirl. Well, the ability to trot out infantile truisms, delphic waffle and anodyne tropes is effectively the BBC Cymru Wales job description…
He may even wend his way down the Good Works route, a life of charitable service on behalf of some suitably uncontroversial and impossible to oppose cause – children with cancer, tortured donkeys, kindness, that sort of thing – steadily ascending to the Much-Loved National Institution status that so few attain (take it from me: it’s over-rated).
From my perspective, I would like to see him invest in Welsh domestic football, in one of the 108 clubs in the Cymru League’s top three tiers, for instance, where not a bean has been invested since the foundation of the Welsh football pyramid in 1992. Any investment would make a huge difference and properly begin the urgent task of building strong clubs good enough to win European games, raise Wales’ lowly club coefficient in the UEFA rankings, protect the existing European places and eventually climb the rankings sufficiently to increase the number of places and thereby increase UEFA funds into the poverty-stricken Welsh game. This is the only way Wales can develop the conveyor belts of young footballers and professional top-tier that every footballing nation needs to have a sustainable, independent and planned future. A healthy domestic game, built to last and to thrive, is also the essential prerequisite for the very existence of a Cymru international football team in the long term. It is axiomatic that international status is not possible unless you have national status. The very wellspring and catalyst of Gareth Bale’s joyous halcyon days as well as his stellar fortune was the international team that only exists in the 21st century because we exist as a footballing nation. To divert a little of his riches in the direction of the Cymru Leagues would be the very best way for him to really make a difference, construct a fitting and lasting legacy and make sure that his children and his children’s children will also one day have the chance to sing Yma o Hyd.
My prediction? Oh that’s easy: anything I suggest, support or hope for will not happen.