There was a time when the World Cup was practically the only chance to see great players from other continents, but that has changed now that the top footballers of every country roam the world in search of increasingly profitable employment. So, not entirely perversely, instead of the players from this year’s Cup (whom I’ve already seen on television numerous times with their club teams), my attention is fixed on one I won’t get to watch.
There is a sad and noble tradition of players missing a World Cup through injury, but spare a thought for the ones who never made it because of their nationality—because everyone else from their country was so useless that they couldn’t be single-handedly dragged to the tournament. The stand-out here is George Best who, on the one hand, remains a relatively local legend because he happened to be born in Northern Ireland and, on the other, has been elevated to the mythic realm reserved for untested greatness. (Whereas if he had played, he might have been part of yet another tradition: great players who failed to deliver on the biggest stage of all.) Ryan Giggs is a more interesting case. He might have been eligible to play for England, but elected to be Welsh. And now, in his famously fast footsteps comes—in the sense of not coming—soccer’s man of the moment, Gareth Bale, the Real Madrid star with the explosive pace and even more explosive shot.
I was about to begin the next sentence with the words “If Wales had qualified ...” Forgive that sentimental absurdity. Since Wales was never going to qualify, we are being denied the possibility of Bale taking the tournament by storm, as Paul Gascoigne did in Italy in 1990. Even surrounded by mega-stars on his club side, Bale has been outstanding—as when he eased the ball past Barcelona’s Bartra at the halfway line, chased round him (despite being shoved way off the pitch), then ran the ball into the Barcelona goal. Even in games when he is entirely marginalized, he threatens to suddenly wallop the ball home from 30 yards. Depend on it: Many if not most of the games in the World Cup will be deadly dull. Bale would have kept you believing that the 90 minutes you could have spent doing so many other interesting things were not wasted. As it is, this World Cup will be shaped around his absence; he will dominate it as Dylan dominated Woodstock.