More than two years have passed since a grinning Gareth Bale, celebrating a big win for his national team, held up a Welsh flag with the words “Wales. Golf. Madrid. In That Order” written on it.
At least in his soccer career, it appears little has changed.
A day after missing one of the world’s biggest club matches — the ‘clasico’ between Barcelona and Real Madrid in the Spanish league — because, according to Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti, “he wasn’t up to playing,” Bale joined up with the Wales squad on Monday ahead of a World Cup qualifying playoff against Austria.
The Welsh are expecting Bale to play a part in Thursday’s game. Of course they are, for nothing motivates Bale — at one time the most expensive player in history — more than playing for his country.
Especially with Wales’ first appearance at a World Cup in 64 years on the line.
Bale linked up with his Wales teammates having only played around 80 minutes of club football since featuring against Real Betis on Aug. 28.
Indeed, since that game, Bale has made twice as many appearances for Wales (four) than Madrid, for whom his most recent outing was as a late substitute in a Champions League match at Paris Saint-Germain on Feb. 18.
He didn’t make Madrid’s 23-man squad for the 4-0 loss to Barcelona on Sunday, reportedly because of back pain.
“He didn’t feel well yesterday after training. He tried this morning but he wasn’t up to playing,” Ancelotti said after the game.
“He’s now going to join up with his national team and they’ll decide whether he plays or not.”
While Bale may lack the motivation to play for Madrid in what is his ninth — and likely last — season at the Spanish club, he is always ready to go to great lengths to play for Wales.
He now has 100 international caps after playing a World Cup qualifier in November against Belarus, the same country against whom he scored a hat trick in September. On 36 goals, he is Wales’ record scorer and the player the team looks to for inspiration.
He will be far from 100% fit for the Austria game, but that is unlikely to stop Wales coach Robert Page from starting Bale in search of a victory that would advance the team to a match against either Ukraine or Scotland in June, for the right to play at the tournament in Qatar over November and December.
Who knows which club Bale will be playing for then. Surely it won’t be Madrid, which he joined from Tottenham in 2013 for a world-record fee of 100 million euros ($132 million) and won a raft of trophies — including the Champions League four times.
Injuries and a breakdown in his relationship with former coach Zinedine Zidane led to Bale becoming a peripheral figure at Madrid, and the winger joined Tottenham on a season-long loan for the 2020-21 campaign.
Bale seemed to enjoy his soccer more back in the Premier League but he returned to Madrid for this season and has gone back into the shadows.
Will he want to secure one last move in his club career during the offseason? Is he thinking of quitting? No one really knows, and it might yet depend on whether Wales qualifies for the World Cup.
That should be plenty enough motivation to play against Austria in Cardiff on Thursday, whether he is fit or not.
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Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80