Belfast Telegraph

Bale will join stellar list if he fails to make it to a World Cup

 

By Steven Beacom

Gareth Bale sat uncomfortably in his seat in the Cardiff City Stadium on Monday night as he watched his World Cup dream fade away.

Injured and out of action, Bale went through agony as Wales lost 1-0 to Martin O'Neill's Republic of Ireland side in a gripping Group D qualifier.

While the Irish moved forward to next month's play-off, the Welsh rued what might have been had the Real Madrid superstar been on the pitch.

Bale and the Boyos hit the highs in the Euro 2016 finals by reaching the semi-finals - beating Northern Ireland on the way - but earlier this week they had to come to terms with another World Cup low.

This was supposed to be their time - heading to Russia 60 years after playing in their last World Cup finals - with Bale the inspiration.

Disappointment was etched all over his face as the final whistle blew in Cardiff, no doubt wondering if he will ever have the chance to play on the beautiful game's greatest stage.

Bale has won Champions League finals and league titles with Real Madrid, enjoyed a superb spell with Tottenham, was once the most expensive player on the planet and shone like a beacon for his country in the Euros, but for all the medals, wealth and respect he has earned in a stellar career, he is still missing out on what he covets most in sport - to play for Wales in the biggest tournament of all.

The cold, hard fact is that time is running out. Bale will be approaching 33 when the next World Cup comes around, and the likelihood is that the Welsh team won't be as strong in that qualification process.

Bale's dream may never come true. That's a crying shame for a player who, when fit, is regarded as among the top five explosive talents in the modern-day game with only Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar and Luis Suarez ahead of him.

If it is any consolation, he is not alone in terms of great footballers not to have played in a World Cup. Ryan Giggs and Ian Rush are legends from his own land that never made it.

Nor did our own iconic George Best. When Northern Ireland qualified for the 1982 World Cup, there was much talk about manager Billy Bingham bringing the ex-Manchester United star to Spain, but George, playing in the USA by then, was past his best.

"Billy Bingham was under a bit of pressure to pick me but I suppose he could justify leaving me out," said Best.

"I wish he had just taken me as a member of the squad and thrown me on for 15 minutes, only so I could have played in the World Cup."

Northern Ireland's record goalscorer David Healy didn't get there, and if Michael O'Neill's men don't make it this time, heroes such as Steven Davis, Jonny Evans and Gareth McAuley may end up in the same boat.

Others on the list include Republic of Ireland greats Liam Brady and Johnny Giles, England sensation Duncan Edwards, who sadly died in the Munich air crash, France's Eric Cantona and Liberia's George Weah, commonly regarded as Africa's finest footballer.

And then there was the outstanding Alfredo di Stefano. The Real Madrid artist played for three different nations - Spain, Colombia and Argentina - yet never made it to a World Cup. Bale is in good company.

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