Peak Gareth Bale plays football like it’s a wide-screen movie

Date published: Saturday 26th March 2022 7:52 - John Nicholson

Gareth Bale scores twice for Wales in World Cup play-off

Gareth Bale is the man of the moment and John Nicholson has a lot of love for him…

 

Who’s this then?
Gareth Frank Bale is a 32-year-old 6′ 1″ Welshman who has played for just three clubs – Southampton, Spurs and Real Madrid. It feels like he’s been around forever, but it was only in 2006 when he made his debut for the Saints aged just 16 and 275 days. He played 45 games for the south coast club between 2006 and 2007 and scored five times but made a huge impression, winning Football League Young Player of the Year.

His preternatural talent was spotted by Spurs, who turned up at Southampton with a large pottery pig filled with five million pound coins and promised to pay five million more if he met some targets. The Saints snatched the pig and pushed Gareth into Daniel Levy’s loving arms saying ‘you go with the nice man’.

He was to spend six seasons at White Hart Lane. His first three were injury-hit and it was only in his fourth, fifth and sixth seasons that he managed to play over 40 games for the club and as he did so, he began to play further forward and not as a left-back. This reached its apotheosis in his final season, when he scored 26 times in 44 games, by which time Real Madrid were lifting their skirts at him and promising Mr Levy many riches if he would let them seduce his broad-chested boy.

Mr Levy said it would take £85.1million to prise Bale out of White Hart Lane and, getting over-excited, Madrid turned on their money hose and drenched Levy in exactly that amount. Thus began an eight year love/hate relationship which saw Gareth earn more money than the GDP of several countries, score lots of goals and play even more golf. There were well-documented power struggles with manager Zinedine Zidane, rumours of discontent in the squad over his presence, rumours of all sorts of unpleasantness, most of which surfaced after 2016 when he’d signed a new six-year contract earning the thick end of 700,000 Euros per week. Yes, per week.

Things got worse and worse. He was supposed to be going to China but Real wouldn’t let him go, or Real never received a request from Bale to go; take your pick. Eventually he went back to Spurs on loan and the numbers tell a good story of 16 goals in 34 games.

So far for Los Blancos he’s scored 106 goals in 256 games and made 67 assists; that’s one goal or assist every 105 minutes. He’s won four Champions Leagues, scored in two finals, won two league titles and even a Copa del Rey. All of which isn’t bad for a man who gives the impression that football is a hobby that is secondary to his golf career (he plays off a 3 handicap).

But his football legend does not stop there. As the best Welsh player of his generation, he’s long been a talisman for the national side and has rarely let them down. A man for the big occasion. A man who seems inspired by writing his own legend. A kind of Welsh super-hero who always rises to the occasion. And on Thursday, in the World Cup qualifier semi-final he did it again with two more goals, the first a magical free-kick. They were his 37th and 38th goals in 101 internationals.

Still only 32, and out of contract in the summer, where next for Gareth?

 

Why the love?
At some point Gareth changed. I remember seeing him at Southampton and in his early days at Tottenham, and his was a tall but somewhat slender physique. At some point, midway through his tenure at Spurs, he seemed to expand. His chest got broader, his thighs thicker and at 6’ 1″ he suddenly had the sort of body that meant if you ran into him, you would just bounce off and hurt yourself. 

He was always a fast player and as we know, fast players are always loved from the terraces. There is no finer sight in football than someone taking off at high speed. He was a fast runner as a kid, doing the 100m in 11.4 seconds, but at his peak, he was supersonic. 

The best expression of this speed was the infamous game against Inter Milan where, 4-0 down after about half an hour, he scored a hat-trick to lose the game 4-3 but win the second leg 3-1 to progress. The second leg was the famous ‘taxi for Maicon’ game. 

It’s worth pausing to remember how extraordinary that performance in both games was in 2010. In a very real sense it was the making of Bale. Those games elevated him. One moment stands out: Bale takes the ball in his own half, Maicon stands off him, Gareth just knocks the ball long and accelerates past the Brazilian at an extraordinary pace. For a moment they seem to exist in different space-time continuums as Bale collects his own through ball and delivers a cross for Roman Pavlyuchenko to score. It was so devastating that even if you hadn’t taken much notice of Gareth until that point, from now on, that game would be a marker against which he was judged. 

I think there is so much love for Bale simply because the way he plays the game is so extraordinary. There’s nothing half-hearted about it, nothing shy or retiring. At his peak he played the game as though it was a wide-screen movie. And yet, he’s not a star the way other high-profile players are, coming across as a little gauche or shy even. The top knot thing may or may not be your choice of haircuts, but Cristiano Ronaldo he is not. 

Wales talisman Gareth Bale

Yet he is loathed by some sections of the Spanish press with Marca recently calling him a ‘Welsh parasite’. It was ridiculous that Madrid gave him such a lavish six-year contract, but the paper’s ire would be better directed at the club for this decision, rather than Bale’s to accept it. 

It’s true that Wales. Golf. Madrid. Banner did him no favours amongst the more notoriously hysterical football fans who treat the club as though it’s their mother. And further injury this season has limited his appearances. Yes it is obscene that he’s picking up all that money and he’s not even playing, but that is the fault of modern football’s financial insanity and useless contracts which don’t build in any performance-related penalties.

And yet for all his appearances have become more sporadic through injury or through being de-selected, he can still score goals. His 2018 bicycle kick against Liverpool in the Champions League final was as outrageous as it was thrilling and in many ways is emblematic of the second half of his career as injury and age has robbed him of his blistering pace. 

Even though he can’t run full pelt for 90 minutes now, he’s lost none of the artistry and technique to strike a dead ball or when placed in front of goal. And many will want to trade on that even at 32.

 

Four great moments

Taxi for Maicon

 

Overhead madness

So fast that he has time to run off the pitch and run back on and still be ahead.

Two wonderful Welsh goals

 

Future days
Gareth is reportedly worth over £100million, so his next move is not likely to be motivated by cash. Clearly, no-one is going to pay him what he’s been on at Madrid anyway. At 32 he should have at least three years left in him, injuries allowing. The fear for any new club is that he’ll break down at some point, but if the price is right, then many will take a gamble on that.

Being a Cardiff boy and having started his youth career at Cardiff Civil Service F.C., a move to the Bluebirds doesn’t seem the most massively unlikely thing, even if many Premier League teams would take him.

I can’t see him staying abroad, for all the lifestyle pleasures it might offer. For all the honours and trophies he’s won, there is a feeling that latterly at Real Madrid, he’s been wasting precious time. A move now, to a club that will play him regularly and manage his fitness well, could easily lead to a late career encore, after which he can retire to the golf course for the remaining 50 years of his life.

Even so, no-one can say he’s not fulfilled his potential. His game has given so many thrills which will never be forgotten. And for that we should all be grateful.

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