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Bale has never played fewer minutes in his career. He is still Wales’ star player.

Gareth Bale of Real Madrid stands on the bench before the Copa Del Rey round of 16 matches between Elche CF and Real Madrid on January 20, 2022, at Estadio Martinez Valero in Elche, Spain.

More than two years have passed since a beaming Gareth Bale, celebrating a major victory for his national team, raised a Welsh flag with the words “Wales, golf, and Madrid. In That Sequence “scribbled on it

Little appears to have changed in his soccer career.

Bale joined the Wales squad on Tuesday, a day after missing one of the world’s biggest club matches — the ‘Clasico’ between Barcelona and Real Madrid in the Spanish league — because, according to Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti, “he wasn’t up to playing.”

Bale is expected to play in Thursday’s game for Wales. Of course, they are because nothing motivates Bale, who was once the most expensive player in history, more than playing for his country.

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Especially with Wales’ first World Cup appearance in 64 years on the line.

Bale joined his Wales teammates despite having only played about 80 minutes of club football since his appearance against Real Betis on August 28.

Indeed, since that game, Bale has made twice as many appearances for Wales (four) as he has for Real Madrid, where his most recent appearance was as a late substitute in a Champions League match against Paris Saint-Germain on Feb. 18.

He was left out of Real Madrid’s 23-man squad for Sunday’s 4-0 loss to Barcelona, reportedly due to back pain.

“He didn’t feel well after training yesterday, and he tried to play this morning, but he wasn’t up to it,” Ancelotti said after the game.

“He’ll now join his national team, and they’ll decide whether or not he plays.”

While Bale may lack the motivation to play for Real Madrid in his ninth — and likely final — season in Spain, he is always willing to go to great lengths to play for Wales.

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He now has 100 international caps after appearing in a World Cup qualifier against Belarus in November, the same country he scored a hat trick against in September. He is Wales’ all-time leading scorer, with 36 goals, and the player the team looks to for inspiration.

He will be far from 100 percent fit for the Austria game, but Wales coach Robert Page is unlikely to start Bale in search of a victory that would advance the team to a match against either Ukraine or Scotland in June for the right to play in the tournament in Qatar in November and December.

Who knows where Bale will be playing next. Surely not Real Madrid, where he joined from Tottenham in 2013 for a world-record fee of €100 million and won a slew of trophies, including four Champions Leagues.

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Injuries and a rift with former coach Zinedine Zidane caused Bale to become a peripheral figure at Real Madrid, and the winger joined Tottenham on a season-long loan for the 2020-21 season.

Bale appeared to enjoy his soccer more in the Premier League, but he returned to Madrid for this season and has faded into obscurity.

Will he want to make one more move in his club career this offseason? Is he considering quitting? Nobody knows for sure, and it may still depend on whether Wales qualifies for the World Cup.

That should be more than enough motivation for him to play against Austria in Cardiff on Thursday, whether or not he is fit.

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