Gareth Bale actually did send a message against Austria – and it was loud and clear – Guto Llewelyn

He’s washed up, disinterested, a total spent force, and he’s brought Wales within one game of their first World Cup in more than 60 years.

Gareth Bale is the embodiment of greatness. Despite what his detractors may say, this is true for his record at club level too. After all, only 11 people have won more Champions Leagues or European Cups than Bale. But at international level, he has reached levels of greatness previously thought to be unattainable for a Welshman.

He was a driving force in two European Championship qualifications, a major player in their run to the Euro 2016 semi-finals, and his country’s all-time leading goal scorer. He therefore had nothing left to prove to the adoring Welsh public. However during this qualification campaign he has kept proving his dedication to his country and his burning desire to lead us to a World Cup.

READ MORE:The appalling treatment of Gareth Bale amid vile abuse, car damage and vicious attacks

On Thursday night he rolled back the years, scoring two outstanding goals including one of his trademark free-kicks, and giving Wales that cutting edge quality required to get the win.

It was a performance of sheer class, where Bale combined his experience with the unshakable quality he’s always possessed, to once again be the difference-maker for Wales. Incredibly, there were some before kick-off who suggested Bale should not start the game, seeing as he had played just 270 minutes for Real Madrid all season. But one of the countless reasons why Bale is so celebrated by the Welsh public is that he’s always turned up for Wales, regardless of how things are going for his club side.

And the vital characteristic which elevates Bale to his current god-like status is that he saves his greatest performances for Welsh international games. It’s such a rarity in the modern game, a player with genuine world-class talent who puts his country above all else.

There are countless examples of footballers who have excelled for their clubs on the biggest stages but froze when the international break came around, unable to replicate that world-class form.

A prime example is Bale’s Real Madrid team-mate and the opposing captain on Thursday night. David Alaba is a phenomenal talent, a versatile and intelligent athlete who spent more than a decade helping Bayern Munich to league titles and European honours. He’s now playing in Madrid where, other than a perplexingly poor display in last week’s El Clasico, he has been among the very best centre-backs in world football this season.

However he has always struggled to replicate that form when representing Austria. On Thursday night he couldn’t get involved enough for his team and never looked likely to have the kind of impact his Real Madrid team-mate enjoyed.

Unlike Alaba there are many world-class players who can seamlessly transition from the club game to the international sphere without dropping standards. Nobody has ever been able to accuse Cristiano Ronaldo of slacking when he plays for Portugal. But Bale, pretty much throughout his career, has been able to raise his game for Wales and consistently saves his very best for his greatest love.

As the man himself said after Thursday’s victory: “I’ll run into the ground for this country.” For Real Madrid fans the sight of Bale loving life, giving his all and playing so well for his country must be utterly infuriating, seeing as he’s spent the vast majority of the campaign pocketing an enormous wage while making little on-field impact. It’s like a red rag to a bull when it comes to the rabid Madrid-based press who aren’t exactly discreet when it comes to their views on Gareth Bale. You can read more about that here and Bale’s statement in response here.

For Real Madrid, who pride themselves on being the biggest club in world football, the idea that one of their most highly paid players would prioritise a small country of three million people over them is beyond insulting. For their more entitled supporters, the whole concept is both unfathomable and unforgivable.

But for Wales, it simply inflates his iconic status. Wales always comes first for Bale. Nothing matter more to him. When he pulls on the red shirt, he plays like a school kid imagining life as a professional footballer. He scores match-winning goals in big games and becomes a national hero. It’s the stuff of dreams.

Bale isn’t alone in his love of Wales and his burning desire to succeed on the international stage. It’s a trait which runs through his lovable squad but for a player of Bale’s natural brilliance to behave that way is magnificent.

Over the years Welsh fans have had to watch as caps were handed out to average players who quite frankly didn’t care about the national side. Wasters would turn up, put in half-hearted displays and go back to their clubs without any appreciation of how special that honour really should be.

After years of watching these types come and go, Bale’s attitude towards his country could not be more refreshing or inspirational. Now entering the final years of his career, Bale’s desire to succeed with Wales seems as strong as ever and by taking a back seat at the Bernabeu, he has enabled himself to remain a game-changer and a difference-maker for his country.

Whenever Bale does anything, from playing a round of golf to scoring a free-kick at Cardiff City Stadium, sections of the media are quick to ask if he’s sending some kind of message. On Thursday night, there was one clear message which was heard loud and clear: Gareth Bale absolutely adores playing for Wales and he wants to take us to the World Cup.


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