When David Beckham went on his first Far Eastern tour with Real Madrid, he was told that his name was the most recognised foreign words in Japan after Coca-Cola. When Michael Owen was asked to justify his move to the Bernabeu, he mentioned the goal he scored in a 4-2 win over Barcelona. “Somebody told me that it was watched by a global audience of a billion,” he said later.
Glamour and profile come as standard at Real but neither Beckham nor Owen got anywhere near what Gareth Bale has already achieved in his first season in the Spanish capital; a European Cup final. The Beckham years were all about the brand – he won La Liga once and never made it past the quarter-finals of the Champions League. Bale could win it in his first season.
After the stunning 4-0 demolition of Bayern Munich in the semi-final second leg on Tuesday, the heaviest defeat Bayern’s coach, Pep Guardiola, has ever endured in European football, Bale was standing near the away dressing rooms of the Allianz Arena, wearing the same black suit, white shirt and black tie he had donned for his presentation after joining Real in September. He looked like a character from Mad Men rather than the most expensive footballer on the planet. Seven months ago, almost his first question had been about Real’s quest for their 10th European Cup, La Decima, and now it seemed very relevant.
“I was told all about it when I signed,” he said. “There has always been a lot of expectation at Real Madrid but there is enormous expectation surrounding that. We are happy to be there now, happy to have a chance of actually winning it. We cannot get carried away; we have to execute our game plan the way we did here.”
It has been a dozen years since Zinedine Zidane’s outrageous volley won Real their ninth European Cup against Bayer Leverkusen in Glasgow; years when the club spent more than £900m on players and got through 10 coaches. It has become an obsession, a craving that has to be satisfied in the final in Lisbon.
“Obviously, everyone in our dressing room was a little bit nervous. It is natural before a semi-final,” Bale said, although he did not have to point out that most of the Real players had lost three successive semis. “But we knew we had a game plan. It was massively important to get that first goal. It invited Bayern on to us and then we were able to take them on.
“It is a dream come true,” he added. “Not just for me but for everybody at Real Madrid. We played the perfect game against Bayern but we know we have one more hard team to go.”
A month ago, Bayern were being acclaimed as the best team in the world, the earliest ever winners of the Bundesliga, while Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo were being whistled by their own crowd during a 5-0 win over Rayo Vallecano.
With the rise of Atletico, Real could not even count themselves the best team in Madrid. A few days before, Bale had gone off the pitch for a minute and a half to change his boots and Seville had exploited the gap he left to score their second in a 2-1 win that, realistically, has wrecked Real’s chances of winning La Liga. John Toshack, Real’s two-time coach and the man who gave Bale his international debut, told Marca that the current manager, Carlo Ancelotti, should not talk to the player for a month.
Then came Bale’s astonishing goal against Barcelona in the final of the Copa del Rey and now the measured destruction of the European champions in their own stadium. The way Bale held off his marker, Jérôme Boateng, before making a gift of a third goal to Ronaldo in the Allianz Arena was an answer to the accusation that he is at heart a selfish footballer.
Bale admitted he had been slow to settle at the Bernabeu. The struggle to leave Tottenham had been draining and had soured his relationship with the manager there, Andre Villas-Boas. He had spent the summer recovering from injury and no sooner had the £86m forward staged his first press conference than he returned to Wales for international duty.
“I didn’t realise how important a pre-season was until I came to Madrid,” he said. “It took a while for me to get going, which I think everyone understood but I was able to kick on after Christmas, get my fitness back and play well. I do think of the journey and I do think it is great to have come this far, but I also want to live in the here and now and not get carried away.”