Gareth Bale showed in just one match why a team would spend €100 million on a footballer, and why then Inter boss Rafa Benitez, later his coach at Real Madrid, said the Welshman could become the best player in the world.
It was a Champions League group-stage game in 2010, and a 21-year-old Bale was playing up front for title outsiders Tottenham Hotspur against Inter. At the time, the Italians had the best defence in club football, with a back line that featured Brazilian international Maicon. But the man who many considered the world’s number one right-back was shown up by Bale, who outran him spectacularly as chants of “Taxi for Maicon!” rang out.
Bale can achieve sprint speeds of up to 34.7kph; no other world-class player is as quick. Then there’s his fantastic shooting technique, his great ability with free kicks, his eye for what his teammates are doing, and a quality you wouldn’t notice in Bale at first: he can get stuck in better than almost anyone else in the game. He may come across as unsure of himself, but in truth he’s the exact opposite.
Bale in numbers
Few players are quicker on the ball, and there has never been a more expensive footballer. Wales are pinning their hopes on the 26-year-old Real superstar at the European Championships
He was the youngest-ever player to score for Wales, aged just 17 years and 35 days
Bale is the quickest world-class player in football – measured at 34.7kph – and his €100 million price tag made him the game’s most expensive signing
His 43rd goal, scored in March, made him the most prolific Brit ever to play in La Liga
His weekly salary is about €370K – almost 11 times the annual UK average wage
Bale, now 26, didn’t have an easy time of things in the English Premier League. He’s not the type of player that British fans take to their hearts: not a terrier like John Terry, or a maverick like Paul Gascoigne. He initially came across as a bit sensitive, both mentally and physically. The plastic surgery he underwent to correct his sticky-out ears, and his shyness in interviews, did nothing to change his reputation.
But, beneath the surface, Bale knew exactly what he was: a born athlete and winner, having taken every trophy he competed for as a child – for sprinting, long-distance running, rugby, football. The self-confidence he built up during his youth has formed the cornerstone of his current career – and he has seriously needed it over the years.
Spurs bought Bale from Southampton in 2007. But the prodigious talent promptly suffered damage to his ankle and endured two injury-prone years. When he did get match time, he earned himself the unenviable record of being the first player in Britain to suffer 24 defeats in a row.
Bale’s career seemed to be at an end. But he didn’t panic. Some saw a young lad with a quick pair of legs but whose best years were behind him. Bale knew better; he was one of the few players who could run defenders ragged, who could keep running at them until they couldn’t stop him. He knew his time would come. Just over a year after that low point, Bale was voted the PFA Player Of The Year.
His sale to Real Madrid for around €100 million in 2013 was the extreme, yet somehow logical, conclusion. But Bale didn’t have an easy start in Spain, either. He wasn’t playing as centrally as he had in England, and he wasn’t given free-kick duties. After one indifferent season followed by another, the transfer rumours began to circulate. Bale didn’t comment. And he’s currently having an incredible season. He’s overrunning the back lines, scoring goals, setting them up. He is seen as Ronaldo’s legitimate successor.
Gareth Bale has retained his cool despite brutal treatment from the press in both England and Spain, who branded him weak and overrated. For him, it’s enough to know they were wrong. With this mindset, he has survived tough times to build himself a world-class career.