The schoolboy is indivisible from the superstar as Gareth Bale reclines on an improbably large, impossibly soft white sofa in a penthouse suite overlooking Cardiff Bay. He is talking about his return to work tonight in the Santiago Bernabeu, the stadium hailed “the temple of Madridismo”.
The term implies a commitment to austerity, hard work, humility and honesty, qualities not always associated with the bling and body-art generation of multi-millionaire footballers. Bale, though, is different.
As strange as it sounds, for someone who will be centre stage in the Madrid derby at the end of a week in which he carried his nation, Wales, on his muscular shoulders, Bale remains extraordinarily grounded. He does not drink, has never smoked and is the antithesis of the dilettante athlete. He has a close-knit entourage, few foibles and deals with the madness in a faintly amused monotone. It is as if the boy who posed for a holiday photograph in a Real Madrid shirt 16 years ago has never grown up.
“I don’t feel I’ve changed at all, even from the under-nines,” he confirms. “I don’t think I ever will. When I go on a pitch I just try to enjoy it as much as I can. The more you enjoy it, the better you play.
“Once you win something, yeah, you enjoy it. But then it’s on to the next game. Everyone always says you’re only as good as your last game. You’ve just got to keep working hard, keep plugging along. That’s how great teams win more trophies.
Top 10 most expensive players ever
Top 10 most expensive players ever
1/10 Gareth Bale - £86million
Tottenham to Real Madrid (2013) - Bale became the world's most expensive player ever when he made the switch from Spurs to Spain.
2/10 Cristiano Ronaldo - £80m
Manchester United to Real Madrid (2009) - Ronaldo smashed the record transfer fee when he left Old Trafford.
3/10 Luis Suarez - £75m
Liverpool to Barcelona (2014) - The Reds cut ties with Suarez after the 2014 World Cup making a £50m profit.
4/10 Neymar - £71.5m
Santos to Barcelona (2013) - The Brazilian finally completed his long awaited move to Europe after a complex deal.
5/10 James Rodriguez - £63m
Monaco to Real Madrid (2014) - After a superb World Cup showing, the Colombian became Real's latest big money signing.
6/10 Zlatan Ibrahimovic - £59m
Inter Milan to Barcelona (2009) - The Swed only spent two seasons at the Nou Camp despite his mammoth price-tag.
7/10 Kaka - £56m
AC Milan to Real Madrid (2009) - The Brazilian joined in the same summer as Ronaldo but failed to make a real impact at the Bernabeu.
8/10 Edinson Cavani - £55m
Napoli to PSG (2013) - The Uruguayan's deal made him the most expensive player ever purchased by a French team.
9/10 Zinedine Zidane - £53m
Juventus to Real Madrid (2001) - Became the world's most expensive player when he moved to the Bernabeu and more than paid it back, particularly with his spectacular goal in the 2002 Champions League final against Bayer Leverkusen.
10/10 Radamel Falcao - £51m
Atletico Madrid to Monaco (2013) - The newly funded Monaco signalled their intent by signing the Colombian.
“We pretty much always play under lights in Spain. It’s nice to play at night. It’s almost like having a force-field around the stadium. Every bit of noise is trapped in. There’s music and the fans turn out. To experience them is amazing. The adrenaline makes you step up a level or two.”
Such stark simplicity and endearing innocence fit the fable of the boy spotted by chance playing in a six-a-side tournament for Cardiff Civil Service FC, who survived a one-match trial to become an apprentice at Southampton and persevered through a 24-match wait for his first win for Tottenham.
It offers a hint of why Bale’s first season as a galactico ended with him scoring in the Champions League final, and sharing a celebratory dawn in an open-top parade which stalled at the Cibeles fountain in central Madrid, Real’s unofficial shrine, as the human impact of the achievement sank in.
“It was mind-blowing how many people were there at six in the morning. By the time it was finished, the sun was out. To see how much it meant was pretty incredible. The people were never-ending. You would look down streets and they would just fill up. It was pretty crazy, surreal.”
Such scenes were a distant prospect when I first met Bale, more than four years ago, at Pinewood Studios. Featuring in his first TV advertisement, he had been advised to study Michael Owen’s professionalism in such an unfamiliar setting. He was wide-eyed yet measured and, in hindsight, revealed most about his mindset when he spoke of his hero.
“The one player I have looked up to since I was a kid is Ryan Giggs,” he said that day, oblivious to the self-important scurrying of the film set. “He’s obviously Welsh, left-footed, and has done almost everything possible in football. He’s 37, I’m 20. At my age 22 seems a long way away.
“He is such a professional person. He has a massive presence. Playing in the same team as him is easy. He knows the game inside out, can pretty much do everything. Off the pitch he looks after himself so well. That is why he is the player he is, and why he is still going today.”
Giggs remained at Manchester United, the club he is destined to manage. Bale responded to the magnitude of his opportunity when Real Madrid decided he fitted their marketing strategy. He grasps the logic of other similarly gifted players, like Liverpool’s Raheem Sterling, following suit.
“I think the most important thing is you feel it’s the right move. If you feel you’re going to play, then I would encourage a British player to go abroad. I’ve enjoyed every minute of it, the new culture, the new life. I felt like I wanted to challenge myself. It’s down to the player himself whether he can kick on.
“If you look at Raheem Sterling, I think he’s shown what a good player he is. He’s starting to perform more consistently. If he keeps working hard and doing what he’s doing then he’s going to keep progressing and the sky is his limit.
“For me, it was quite easy. I went in the first day and the ones I knew, like Cristiano Ronaldo, Luka [Modric], Xabi Alonso, all gave me advice. The team’s very good like that. We all respect each other as players and as people, so whoever comes in will be made to feel very welcome.
“It’s a very close changing room. We go out for food together, do things to make team spirit better. It’s a very good environment. Last year we all stuck together, fought for each other and worked hard as a team, doing the running off the ball and the things that people don’t see and aren’t glamorous.”
Statistics proclaim Bale’s significance – he has scored or assisted 28 goals in the last 29 La Liga games – and he feels “there’s still more to come”. The successful transition, in a climate of constant expectation, is a mixture of nature and nurture, instinct and application.
“I feel like I’m improving all the time. I’ve learned a lot, in terms of possession and making the right decisions, when to attack and when to keep the ball.
“You always try to get yourself in the right frame of mind, get yourself in the zone. You’re concentrating on where you’re supposed to be, what you’re supposed to be doing. If you’re on the ball you’re concentrating on what to do next. You’re just in the moment. You kind of forget everything that’s going on around you, even though it’s so loud. You have to think two or three moves ahead; your anticipation has to be good to see something quicker than your opponent.”
Repetition is the counterpoint to calmness and intuition amidst the frenzy. Bale’s winning free-kick for Wales on an absurdly sub-standard artificial pitch in Andorra on Tuesday night, struck with a Ronaldo-esque combination of spin, pace and dip, testified to due diligence on the training ground.
“It’s taken a few years of practising. It’s a difficult technique and you don’t see too many players who are able to do it. We stay pretty much every day after training to work on free-kicks and shooting. After many hours, days and years of practice, when it comes off on a game day, it’s even more pleasing.
“I definitely feel I can keep improving every season, improve my game in training every day. We’re expected to try to win every trophy. We want to win every trophy. We’ll give our best.”
Retaining the Champions League is a priority – Bale cites the usual suspects, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Manchester City and Chelsea, as Real’s principal rivals. He understands also that civic pride demands a robust response against an Atletico Madrid side which earned bragging rights by winning the Spanish Super Cup last month.
He relishes prospective Champions League ties with Liverpool, and feels Chelsea will win the Premier League because “they have looked very strong, very good on and off the ball, very compact”. It will take Manchester United “a bit of time to get up and running” but he expects Angel Di Maria, his former Madrid team-mate, to be a galvanising influence at Old Trafford.
As for himself, can he still relate to that boy in the holiday snap? “Like any young kid, he wanted to grow up and be a footballer, and if possible a footballer for Real Madrid. I believe it’s the best and biggest club in the world. So, for me, it was a dream.”
Out of other mouths, that would have sounded politically expedient. But you listen to Bale and you believe. He is living that dream.
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