Former Wales captain and BBC Sport columnist Ashley Williams explains why Gareth Bale is so important on and off the pitch to Welsh hopes of reaching the 2022 World Cup.
Gaz is my friend as well as my former international team-mate and I think the perfect way for him to sign off his amazing Wales career would be by taking us to the 2022 World Cup – that’s the dream finale, and not just for me.
It’s down to him to decide, though. His decision about his future shouldn’t be based on what we all want him to do.
I don’t know what comes next for him following the end of our journey at Euro 2020 but, in his 96 games for Wales since his debut aged 16 in 2006, he has earned the right to carry on for as long as he wants to, or finish when he likes without worrying about letting his country down – he has never done that.
Whatever his decision, though, his legacy for his country is secure.
He is the greatest player Wales has ever produced, in my opinion. That’s a huge statement, but I can’t see many people disagreeing with it – only another legend like John Charles really comes close.
Bale the legend
Certainly in the modern era, Gaz is untouchable. That’s because of what he has achieved in a Wales shirt on top of everything he has done at club level, and the way he has gone about it.
Whatever has been going on with his club career, he has always been there and produced for us. I’m proud to have played alongside him, and he’s just impeccable, really, in every way.
He turns 32 next month and, before Euro 2020 started, he said he had got an announcement to make about his career later this summer – now we are waiting to see what it it is.
I just hope it involves the World Cup at the end of next year, because Wales have got a much better chance of making it with him in the team, and leading this squad.
As a player, he has had to change his style a little bit and he isn’t the spectacular player we saw at Euro 2016, who was single-handedly scoring goals and making assists, but he gives so much to this group with his presence alone.
He has still handled himself brilliantly at this tournament – look at his performance in our win over Turkey for example – and he has also handled the team really impressively at different times too.
Bale the leader
I was asked lots of times how Bale would do as captain when he took over the armband from me in 2019, and he has answered that himself.
There are many examples of how well he’s done, from he way he has looked after young players during games to giving talks to everyone in the camp at the end of them.
He did exactly what he needed to do as the leader of this team, and just having him around is so important. I’ve seen that for myself down the years, when young players would come into the senior squad for the first time.
Some of them would have grown up watching him play and scoring goals to win Champions League finals but then they would meet him and find out he is a genuinely nice guy who makes them feel a part of things straightaway. There is no ‘Bale sits here and we sit there’ when you join up with Wales. Everyone is in the mix, and he is just one of the boys. Ask anyone in the camp and they will tell you that.
Whether you are a Wales fan, part of the team now or or a former player like me, you just want to see him in a red Wales shirt again.
He is not missing much in his career, but he hasn’t been to a World Cup yet and I am hoping that is niggling away at him and he sticks around to try to put it right.
The influence he has on our younger players could play a massive part in whether we qualify for Qatar or not, and how well we do if we make it.
Lessons to be learned from 2021 and 2016
As I said on TV after the Denmark defeat, I always felt that Euro 2020 was a tournament that could help this young Wales team find their feet for their next major finals.
There is no shame in losing to a very good Danish side in the last 16, and we can go home with our heads held high.
For me, Wales achieved their goal just by getting there and getting out of a very difficult group, and the experience they have picked up along the way is going to be invaluable for doing even better next time.
Hopefully one of the lessons learned will be from what happened to us after we reached the semi-finals at Euro 2016.
We had a big hangover as a team and made a poor start to qualifying for the next World Cup, drawing three of our first four qualifiers at the end of the year. That cost us, because we didn’t make it to Russia in the end.
When I look through this Wales team, I think we are going to get better collectively and individually as players. But we will have to be hungry to get back to the next finals too.
We’ve now reached the knockout stage of the past two European Championships, which is some achievement when you think about how long we had to wait to make a major tournament at all after the 1958 World Cup.
We need to maintain that momentum so the younger age-groups coming through know that Wales qualify for finals because, before 2016, it was almost part of our mindset that we couldn’t do that.
Now that we know we can, I want us to keep doing it so it is always part of our expectations. We have to keep on aiming high.
Ashley Williams was speaking to BBC Sport’s Chris Bevan.