By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) - World Cups and continental championships are natural stages for the world's greatest soccer players to parade their skills, unless, that is, you happen to be Welsh.
Former Liverpool goal machine Ian Rush and Mark Hughes, one of Manchester United's greatest strikers, enjoyed glittering club careers and regularly joined forces in Welsh red, but never qualified for a tournament finals.
Ryan Giggs is still weaving his wizardry for United yet the 39-year-old would probably swap one of his 12 Premier League titles for the memory of taking on Brazil or Argentina in the World Cup.
That dream has already died for Giggs who won 64 caps before admitting it was never going to happen.
And with Wales now ranked down alongside the makeweights of international soccer, Gareth Bale, the country's new golden boy, looks like enduring the same frustration.
The 23-year-old Tottenham Hotspur winger, currently terrorizing opposing defenses in his side's quest to qualify for the Champions League, scored the first goal in Wales' 2-1 friendly victory over Austria on Wednesday.
It was a classy strike, and his seventh goal in his last nine internationals, yet outside Britain it would have gone largely unnoticed, such is the low-profile of the Wales team.
Bale's stunning displays during Tottenham's foray into the Champions League in 2010-11, including a blistering a hat-trick in the San Siro against Inter, put him on the radar of some of Europe's biggest hitters and his 11 league goals this season means he remains one of the hottest-properties in the game.
Considering its size and passion for rugby union, Wales have produced some great players down the years, but never quite enough at the same time to form a truly competitive team.
The same problem still exists.
Bale ran rings around Austria on Wednesday in Swansea and while others such as Arsenal's Aaron Ramsey, Liverpool's Joe Allen and former Manchester City winger Craig Bellamy provide quality support, Wales' chances of qualifying for next year's World Cup in Brazil are remote.
They are second last in Group A, with only Scotland below them, and next month's home match against Croatia, while offering Bale another shop window for his talents, looks too tall an order for Chris Coleman's side.
Coleman is quick to acknowledge how lucky Wales are to have Bale in their ranks, although Bale could be forgiven for wishing he had been born the other side of the Severn Bridge because, if he had, he would surely be a fixture in the England side.
For England fans, too, the prospect of Bale playing in front of Ashley Cole and linking up with Wayne Rooney and Jack Wilshere is pure fantasy football.
"There are not many players that can do what he does," Coleman said. "He is such a threat and we know when we have him in the team we can afford to go without the ball for periods because he is such a danger when we get it to him."
Bellamy, who has played with some stellar names during his career, said Bale was already the complete player.
"He's just an outstanding footballer," the Cardiff City player said. "It's everything; there is not one thing Bale cannot do. He's an incredible player, he's from Cardiff, he's Welsh, and no one else can have him."
More is the pity some may say but while Bale cannot change his nationality and will most likely spend every other summer watching tournaments on TV like Giggs, Rush and Hughes, Tottenham know that providing him with a big stage is vital if he is not to be lured away to Spain, Italy or Manchester.
"At the moment we are very, very fortunate to have him," Tottenham manager Andre Villas-Boas said.
"I think we can reach our objectives with him at this level and if we reach our objectives we can hopefully continue to have Gareth in our club."
(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Justin Palmer)