Placing where Gareth Bale stands in the pantheons of the United Kingdom’s footballing greats is more complicated than for arguably any other player.
When you look at the usual criteria – trophies won, impact, longevity, legacy – few have fluctuated more wildly than the 33-year-old Welshman who announced his retirement this week.
None of his contemporaries can match his trophy haul and there is no doubt he regularly delivered a ‘wow factor’, never more than in Champions League finals or wearing a Wales shirt.
Gareth Bale retired from football on Monday – ending a stunning career for club and country
Bale won 17 major trophies, 15 of those at Real Madrid (pictured with the Champions League)
For all Bale’s brilliance, the likes of Sir Bobby Charlton can arguably be called the UK’s greatest
Sir Kenny Dalglish (centre) is another who can be called the greatest export from these shores
Yet scratch beneath the surface, and he can’t compare in certain areas to other greats like Sir Bobby Charlton or Sir Kenny Dalglish.
The five Champions League titles have been oft-quoted this week but in 2022 he was an unused substitute for Real Madrid in the final against Liverpool and only played for seven minutes in the whole competition.
Medals have to be taken into account but can not be the only criteria. Otherwise Darren Fletcher with his five domestic championships would have to be considered a greater Premier League player than Steven Gerrard, who never won it.
None of this is to decry Bale’s career which was clearly outstanding. I’ve covered football for 30 years and he’d be in the best XI I’ve ever seen live, largely because of a game I watched at Old Trafford in 2012.
Bale absolutely destroyed Rio Ferdinand that day with almost super-human power and finesse, scoring one and assisting two in a 3-2 Spurs win.
Gareth Bale’s first goal in Real Madrid’s 2018 Champions League final win was a thing of beauty
Bale regularly delivered a ‘wow factor’ on the biggest stages – such as the above goal for Real
To label him ‘The Greatest-Ever’ from the UK is more complex however. It’s an interesting debate because while we’ve had many very fine players in history, we’ve never had a Messi, Maradona or Pele that’s dominated the world stage. Or even a Ronaldo, Platini, Zidane or Cruyff.
It means it’s an open field and everyone will have their opinion. Bale has to be in the conversation at least.
Trophies do count for something. Bale started only two of the five Champions League finals for which he won medals but at the same time he had an impact.
Firstly, in 2014 when he headed Real Madrid’s key second goal against Atletico Madrid and even more in 2018 when he came off the bench to score a sensational overhead kick against Liverpool that will be remembered for the ages.
He also collected three LaLiga titles – although again he was used only sparingly in the 2021-22 success with only five appearances – and scored an iconic winner in the 2014 Copa del Rey when he ran off the pitch to give himself room to burst past Barcelona’s Marc Bartra and score.
He ran off the pitch before scoring a famous winner against Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final
BALE’S RIVALS FOR THE GREATEST UK PLAYER OF ALL-TIME TITLE
1: Sir Bobby Charlton – Won the European Cup and World Cup and inspired millions by coming back from the tragedy of seeing friends killed in the Munich air crash.
2: Sir Kenny Dalglish – Incredibly skilful and popular Liverpool star who won every trophy with and still holds Scotland records for games and goalscorer.
3: Sir Stanley Matthews – First European player of the year and first football star to be known throughout the world when access to matches on television was limited.
4: Ryan Giggs – One-club man whose tally of 13 Premier League titles may never be beaten. Also won Champions League twice and his career at the top spanned teen idol to veteran.
5: George Best – Nobody had a X-factor like Northern Ireland’s George Best voted Europe’s best aged just 22.
6: Gareth Bale – Succeeded at arguably the biggest club in Europe and regarded as a national treasure in Wales.
7: Wayne Rooney – Manchester United and England’s record goalscorer, frustratingly never delivered at a major tournament after getting injured as a teenager at Euro 2004.
8: Bobby Moore – Captain of England’s only World Cup-winning team and greatly respected throughout the game.
‘A goal any sprinter would be proud of,’ remarked Olympic legend and devoted football fan Usain Bolt.
Bale also collected seven other trophies, an assortment of Club World Cups, European Super-Cups and Spanish Super-Cups.
That alone doesn’t make him the greatest but it certainly gives him the edge over someone like Harry Kane who is still looking for his first piece of silverware despite his individual scoring records. Sir Tom Finney didn’t win a trophy either, Alan Shearer and Sir Stanley Matthews just one each.
Bale’s magical moments also thrilled fans in a way only the true greats can. In that sense, he can be compared to George Best – who would also have his supporters for the GOAT from these shores.
Bale was at the top for longer than Best though not as long as others like Wayne Rooney or Ryan Giggs, who won 13 Premier League titles and two Champions Leagues.
Sir Stanley Matthews won just one trophy during his career, but that doesn’t diminish his talent
Bale was at the top for longer than George Best (left) though not as long as Wayne Rooney
Bale scores over Ryan Giggs is his international career for Wales, but had a shorter career peak
Where Bale scores over Giggs is his international career. While the Manchester United star was criticised for not being 100 per cent committed to his country, Bale retires as Wales’ record caps holder and goalscorer. And of course he captained them to their first World Cup since 1958.
He was also billed as the main man during their run to the semi-finals at Euro 2016 though having scored in all three group games, he didn’t register in the knockout stages when Hal Robson-Kanu took the glory for his Cruyff turn against Belgium.
The tributes given by the Welsh football community this week makes it clear who they think is the best.
‘The greatest Welsh footballer of all time and that’s saying something with the other greats we have seen,’ said John Hartson. ‘Magical moments, spectacular goals, unique talent.. and a proud Welshman.’
It certainly helps your statistics when you take every free-kick and corner but Bale’s influence as a talisman helps his cause to be regarded as the greatest UK-born.
Bale has been Wales’ talisman – but it helps when you’re taking penalties and free-kicks too
Interestingly though, Dalglish also holds the records for appearances and goals for his country and he played during a time when there were less international games and qualifying for major tournaments was harder because there were fewer places available.
Some of the great Liverpool team of the 1970s and 80s filled their boots with medals. Dalglish, Graeme Souness and Alan Hansen won three European Cups, Phil Neal four to go with eight league championships though it’s harder for defenders to be considered the best of all-time.
Otherwise Ashley Cole would have a shout because for many years he would have been selected in any world XI at left back.
The main argument against Bale is though he shone on the big stage, was he consistent enough and did he contribute enough to his teams week-in, week-out.
At Madrid, successive managers put him on the bench from his late-20s onwards. The fans were always ambivalent, loving his talent but questioning his desire. He was booed on occasion amid claims he preferred golf to football.
The main argument against Bale is he didn’t shine on a regular basis and had different interests
The one-time world’s most expensive player, costing £80million when he joined from Spurs in 2013, was decried as a ‘ball hog’ by the Spanish press. For the first part of his career at The Bernabeu, Bale was a distance behind Cristiano Ronaldo in the pecking order. When Ronaldo left, he didn’t pick up the baton.
Bale has done stupendously well. The left back from Southampton who failed to win any of his first 25 games in a Tottenham shirt developed into one of the world’s premier attacking superstars and even won a MLS crown in his only season in America with FC Los Angeles.
But with only 337 league starts throughout his entire career, way behind many of his peers like Giggs, Gerrard and Frank Lampard let alone the greats from yesteryear such as Sir Bobby Charlton and Bobby Moore, calling him the very greatest from the UK may be a stretch too far.
England’s 1966 World Cup-winning captain Bobby Moore is another who deserves a mention