When Gareth Bale was 12 years old he watched transfixed as Zinedine Zidane’s magical volley against Bayer Leverkusen at Hampden Park won the ninth European Cup in Real Madrid’s glorious history. Bale could not have known that 12 years on, he would be entwined in the story of the same man, the same club, the same competition.
But here Bale is now, 24 years old, playing for Real, taking instructions from assistant coach Zidane and hoping to deliver the historic 10th European Cup – La Decima – against neighbours Atletico at the Stadio da Luz in Lisbon on Saturday evening.
It is already a special story but would be even more so if Bale were to be a European champion by the end of the week. He has come a long way from Tottenham, never mind from the Cardiff schoolboy who excelled at cross-country and athletics, and loved watching Real on TV.
“I was a huge Madrid fan, the club played with such a swagger, they believed they could win every game,” Bale says. “They always had players who would get you out of your seat and, as a fan, that’s what you want to see. It was just everything about Real Madrid – the team, the stadium, winning trophies, or getting close.”
Bale has been just as important as he would have hoped to this year’s European quest. Only Cristiano Ronaldo has scored more Champions League goals for Real than Bale has this season. He has formed a destructive front three with Cristiano and Karim Benzema known as the “BBC”. Bale’s best friend at the club is Luka Modric, but he says that he and Ronaldo have “a very good relationship on and off the field”. The “BBC” combined to shred Schalke 6-1 in Gelsenkirchen in the last 16. Bale scored the brilliant second goal before adding another.
Facing Borussia Dortmund in the quarter-final, Bale scored the opener in the 3-0 first-leg win before beating German opposition for the third time, Bayern Munich, in the semi-finals.
Winning the final would be a perfect end to the season, but it has already been successful for the forward. He won his first major honour in senior football, the Copa del Rey, as Real beat Barcelona 2-1 in the final at the Mestalla last month. Bale scored the winner with five minutes left, a goal it seems only he could have scored, sprinting past Marc Bartra down the left and beating goalkeeper Jose Pinto at his near post.
“That is what any player wants to do, score big goals in big games,” Bale says, on behalf of EA Sports’ 2014 Fifa World Cup Brazil game. “I scored a similar goal for Wales a few weeks beforehand. I was just purely focused on the ball and if I am in a sprint with whoever I fancy myself to beat them. It was obviously great to score the goal, and the important thing was to win the first trophy of the season. That gave us a lot of confidence.”
It has certainly been impressive how quickly Bale has adapted to the demands of playing for Real and in the Champions League. His European debut for the club, a 6-1 win at Galatasaray in September, came two and a half years after his last game in the competition, Spurs’ 5-0 quarter-final defeat to Real in April 2011.
The settling-in period in Madrid, such as it was, was swift. “It took me a bit of time to get used to everything,” Bale says, “but I felt comfortable straight away playing football here with the best players in the world. And I have been enjoying it ever since.”
Away from the pitch, “certain things are a lot harder than others”, such as learning the language. “But it is about embracing everything, taking it on board, and trying to enjoy the ride.”
Ultimately, though, Bale is a footballer and his performances are what matter most, and have set the tone for his whole life in Madrid. “I have just come here and purely concentrated on my football. I have not dwelt on any media attention or anything like that. I have tried to get myself set up as quickly as possible and try to concentrate purely on my football, enjoy playing and let my football do the talking.”
“It’s important that we enjoy the atmosphere but remain focused on the match itself. That’s why you play for a huge club like Real Madrid.”
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