Gareth Bale looks dejected as the final whistle blows in Amsterdam
Credit: Koen van Weel
He has already done so much for his country that there is no shame in defeat or blame on his shoulders but this was not how Gareth Bale would have imagined things.
Wales were beaten, dominated and knocked out. All he could do was watch on with the horrible feeling that comes when you know there is nothing you can do to stop it.
Bale has got Wales out of trouble before, inspired them to great things in the past, but this time there would be no heroics, no memories to cherish.
How many more chances will he have to play on this sort of stage? At the age of 31, there are not too many years left in those ankles, knees and hips of his.
He has never shirked a thing for Wales, never swerved a call up, but if he is going to prolong his career how much longer can he continue doing both? It is a question he will have to answer at some point, but for now it can wait.
Because this will hurt. As much as Bale knows Denmark deserved to win and Wales to head home, it will not help.
It was a sad way for things to fizzle out, particularly if this is the last time we see Bale at a major tournament.
There was no shame in defeat, but there was regret. Wales are better than they played here and so is Bale.
Where others might have found reasons not to play for the national team, Bale was different. A global star who never forgot who he was or where he came from. It is Wales that he still calls home, it is Wales that defines him, Wales that makes him happy.
The longer he has been away, all those years at Southampton, Tottenham and Real Madrid, the more passionate he has become, the emotional bond pulling him back, like roots refusing to be pulled from the soil.
Bale cut a frustrated figure for much of the ninety minutes in Amsterdam
Credit: OLAF KRAAK
Playing for Wales has stirred something in Bale, a drive, a passion and a determination that appeared to have drained from him at Real Madrid. Frustrated and marginalised, his stay in Madrid has been a successful one, but not a particularly happy one. If that is the highly paid job, playing for Wales is his passion.
It has never dimmed or faded. We saw it five years ago in France when Bale’s presence, as well as his brilliance, fired Wales into the semi finals. He was in his prime then, but even as he enters the twilight of his career, it is Bale who unsettles the opposition, his quality that attracts attention and creates the holes for others to try and slip through. It is a simple plan, an obvious ploy, but that does not make it any easier to stop.
Denmark knew what was coming. They will have talked about from the moment they knew who they would face in the Round of 16. Bale is Wales – stop Bale and they would stop the Welsh threat.
Bale was prominent in a bright start from the men in red, the yellow of his captain’s armband flashing whenever the sunlight caught it. Denmark were drawn closer and closer. Two defenders at first, then three, sometimes four closed in. They sent him wide, pushing him towards the touchline, hoping to squeeze the space as well as the angles.
But Bale kept finding a gap, threading a pass into the feet of a teammate, Dan James, unmarked shooting narrowly wide. It was a sliver of an opportunity rather than a big one, but the sort you felt Wales would need to take to beat the Danes.
If Wales were on top at the start of the first half, a whirlwind ten minutes that hinted at so much more than they delivered, Denmark settled and gradually began to take control, pushing the Welsh players, passing the ball around and between them, building pressure. Wales could not keep the ball, let alone get it to Bale. All he could do was wait and help defend. It is not his strength or where you want him.
How Bale’s Wales career breaks down
Denmark were comfortably the better side, controlling, confident – threatening. When the goal came just before the half hour mark it was a special one but it did not come as a surprise.
As the Welsh players looked at each other, sighed and scowled, Bale shouted encouragement. He cajoled. He urged heads to lift and chests to come out. Defiance was needed, do not crumble – do not let Denmark get another goal, do not let them move out of reach
Hang in there, stay tight, stay organised and Denmark would start to worry about defending their lead rather than extending it.
All it would take is a moment, a few seconds, a mistake. Bale waited and gradually lost hope, unable to get the ball close enough to the goal to do anything that would hurt the Danes.
As half time approached, Bale was anchored in his own half, forced to ping long diagonal balls to outnumbered teammates. He had been nullified and knew it. His frustration grew.
Denmark scored a second after half time. Bale headed wide. It was another half chance but his expression was one he felt he should have taken.
He did not stop trying. A bit of skill to turn away from his marker, a cross to the far post and a shot from James that was blocked as it headed towards the net. Denmark remained secure, Bale resorting to long throws to try and make something happen.
There is only so much any individual can do in a team sport, but Denmark knew how to stop Wales and did it perfectly.