Gareth Bale in Qatar. / REUTERS

A national hero

Wales has never seen, or will see again, a sportsman who will rise to the standard set by Gareth Bale

ROB PALMER COMMENTATOR, ESPN

Gareth Bale arrived with a fanfare, filled football stadia with excitement, reached the pinnacle of the game, won cup finals with his individual brilliance - there can be no doubt about it, he's the finest footballer to emerge from Great Britain.

Sadly, his career ended in a whimper and, in his final years, his body prevented him from maintaining the exceptional standards he'd set over an incredible career.

Recency bias means that people remember a broken Bale rather than the one who gave Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi a run for their money to be the best player on the planet.

This is a man whose transfer broke the world-record, and he went on to give value for money.

The Tottenham hat-trick against Inter Milan announced him to the world. His sensational winner in the 2014 Copa del Rey final against eternal rivals Barcelona should have been enough to write him into Real Madrid folklore. The overhead kick in the 2018 Champions League final is the best goal ever scored in a European final.

Wales has never seen or will see again a sportsman who will rise to such a high standard. When he made his debut as a 16-year-old, the country was a footballing mess. By the time he'd reached the end of his career, they were one of the most feared underdogs in world football.

He led them to the semi-finals of the Euros in 2016. He scored seven goals in the qualifying stages, three at the tournament as well as setting up several for teammates. The man was a national hero and will be so forever.

So, it's odd that he was close to becoming an anti-hero back in Madrid. This is a man who shared the spoils in five Champions League successes and scored in all the major finals.

The first whiff of an issue is when some at the Bernabeu booed him in 2015 for choosing to try to score for himself than pass to Cristiano Ronaldo. A couple of years later, he wasn't too keen to be moved to China when Real wanted to offload him from the payroll.

The fans - and the Spanish media - didn't take too kindly when he posed with a flag that read 'Wales. Golf. Madrid. And in that order.'

There was no comeback from that. The body that engineered speeds other footballers could only dream of reaching was beginning to fail him. In his short loan return to Spurs, he looked a shadow of his former self. He needed to reach a deal with Los Angeles FC to tick over long enough to be ready to perform at the World Cup finals. Even then, he scored another cup-winning goal.

Thirty-three is young to call it a day, especially with Karim Benzema. Luka Modrić, and Lionel Messi still performing at the highest level at a more advanced age.

They are all fortunate that their bodies have allowed them to defy science. Bale is similar to Michael Owen - he's so finely tuned that once the calibration had gone, there was no way to reach the standards he'd set.

Ultimately, it proved to be human frailty that curtailed his career. Ironically, he'd reached levels that very few other humans could dream of.

He deserves to spend time with his family, release himself from the football bubble he's lived in since his schoolboy days, count his medals, and when he's got some spare time, work on his golf handicap of two!