Gareth Bale retires as one of Britain's greatest football exports

Gareth Bale retires from football with his place as one of Britain's greatest players secure after a spectacular career at home and abroad.

The Welshman was once the world's most-expensive player when he moved to Real Madrid from Tottenham in 2013 and went on to win the Champions League five times with the Spanish giants.

However, he will be most fondly remembered and loved in his homeland for his achievements in dragging Wales from the wilderness of international football to two European Championships and a first World Cup since 1958.

At the peak of his powers, Bale inspired Wales to the semi-finals of Euro 2016 in their first major international tournament for 58 years.

The 33-year-old leaves the stage with a record 111 caps for Wales and 41 goals -- another record.

"My journey on the international stage is one that has changed not only my life but who I am," Bale said in an emotional open letter to the Welsh supporters.

"The fortune of being Welsh and being selected to play for and captain Wales has given me something incomparable to anything else I've experienced."

- Global star -

Bale's career started at Southampton, where he made his debut aged just 16 and caught the eye during just one full season in the second-tier Championship.

In 2007 he joined Tottenham for an initial fee of £5 million ($6 million), but his path towards stardom at Spurs was not always a smooth one.

Bale did not taste success in any of his first 24 Premier League appearances for the club over a period of more than two years.

However, he soon began to make his mark as a buccaneering left-back with two games against then reigning European champions Inter Milan in 2010 propelling him into the spotlight.

Bale scored a hat-trick despite being on the losing side in a 4-3 defeat at the San Siro before running the Italian giants ragged as Spurs gained revenge in a 3-1 win at White Hart Lane.

He ended that season as the Premier League's players' player of the year and won the award for a second time in 2012/13 once he had been moved into a more advanced attacking role.

- Memories and medals in Madrid -

His sensational performances attracted the interest of Madrid, who sought Bale to complement a forward line already boasting Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema in a £85 million deal.

Bale's time in Madrid was filled with moments of brilliance and plenty of medals.

A barnstorming run and finish to win the Copa del Rey against Barcelona and the decisive goal to secure Madrid's long-awaited 10th European Cup lit up his debut season.

An even more spectacular overhead kick turned another Champions League final Madrid's way against Liverpool in 2018.

But Bale started three of his five victorious Champions League finals on the bench -- testament to the fact that he failed to produce the consistent brilliance the Madrid fans, media and his managers demanded.

He lost friends in Spain when he responded to jibes over his priorities and love of playing golf by celebrating Wales' qualification for Euro 2020 with a flag that read: "Wales. Golf. Madrid. In that order."

Injuries also took their toll on a player whose devastating impact in his early years was based on blistering pace.

Bale's playing time at club level diminished during his latter years at Real Madrid, a loan spell back at Tottenham in 2020/21 and the final six months of his career at Los Angeles FC.

That only made his ability to rise to the occasion at international level all the more impressive.

His goals in playoff wins against Austria and Ukraine completed his final quest -- to play at a World Cup.

He even scored a goal on football's biggest stage by firing home a penalty against the USA, but Qatar was the end of the road for Bale and the end of an era for Welsh football.

kca/jw/mw