PLAYERS and fans have hailed “Wales’ greatest ever player” after national team skipper Gareth Bale officially announced his retirement from the game this week.

The five-time European Champions League winner with Read Madrid said the opportunity to play for his country had been “incomparable”, and he was “honoured and humbled” to have been part of the team’s success.

In a statement to “my Welsh family”, the 111-cap legend, who led Wales to a first World Cup in 64 years, said: “My decision to retire from international football has been, by far the hardest of my career.

“How do I describe what being a part of this country and team means to me? How do I articulate the impact it has had on my life?

“How do I put in to words the way I felt, every single time I put on that Welsh shirt?

“My answer is that I couldn’t possibly do any of those things justice, simply with words.

“But I know that every person involved in Welsh football, feels the magic, and is impacted in such a powerful and unique way, so I know you feel what I feel, without using any words at all.

“My journey on the international stage is one that has changed not only my life but who I am.

“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.

“I am honoured and humbled to have been able to play a part in the history of this incredible country, to have felt the support and passion of the red wall, and together have been to unexpected and amazing places.

“I shared a dressing room with boys that became brothers, and back room staff that became family. I played for the most incredible managers, and felt the undying support and love from the most dedicated fans in the world.

“Thank you to every one of you for being on this journey with me.

“So for now I am stepping back, but not away from the team that lives in me and runs through my veins. After all, the dragon on my shirt is all I need. Together Stronger. Diolch.”

A statement from Real Madrid said: “Gareth Bale formed part of our team in one of the club’s most successful periods and gave us some of the greatest memories that will never be forgotten.”

Fellow Wales legend John Hartson posted: “Happy retirement @GarethBale, the greatest Welsh footballer of all time and that’s saying something with the other greats we have seen. Magical moments, spectacular goals, unique talent… and a proud Welshman.”

And former England great Alan Shearer added: “Congratulations on an incredible career.”

Cardiff-born Bale retires as Wales’ top scorer with 41 goals and the most capped player in Welsh history.

He played 203 times for Tottenham after signing from Southampton - winning both PFA player of the year and PFA young player of the year in 2012-13 after scoring 26 times in his final season.

He then moved to Real Madrid in 2013 - where he won LaLiga three times, and the Champions League five times, playing 258 games and scoring 106 times.

He finished his career with Los Angeles FC, playing 13 games and scoring three times before going to the World Cup with Wales, where he would score their first goal in the tournament since 1958.

An FAW spokesperson said: “He is widely-regarded as the greatest-ever Cymru player for what he achieved for both club and country during his illustrious career.”

Bale’s finest hour with Cymru arrived in 2016 when Chris Coleman’s side defied the odds to the reach the semi-finals of the EURO’s.

A scorer of iconic goals, Bale eclipsed Ian Rush as the all-time leading Cymru goalscorer with a hat-trick against China in March 2018.