The Last Word: All hail Gareth Bale, even the people jumping on the bandwagon
It seems that everyone is trying to claim credit for the rise of Tottenham's scoring sensation
Sunday 03 March 2013
The madness has begun, and will only gather greater momentum. Campaigns are being waged to save Gareth Bale for a grateful nation. His value will soar as the virus of his fame spreads and he becomes accustomed to the sort of scrutiny reserved for royal brides.
In an age in which sport is defined and defiled by human weakness, Bale's normality and transparent decency assume a disproportionate significance. He conforms to the stereotype of the mild-mannered bank clerk who goes to war and returns a hero.
This is not entirely an accident, because he has been prepared assiduously for the sort of praise which can be as pernicious as criticism. He will broaden his horizons when the time is right, probably after another season in the Champions' League with Tottenham.
He is reassuringly identifiable, a young man who, the last time we met, proudly showed off photographs of his infant daughter on his mobile phone. Just as he is consumed by the simple pleasures of fatherhood, he refuses to abandon childhood friends just because he plays football with endearing verve and joyfulness.
This will not necessarily be apparent today, when he will be the central character in the north London derby, but Bale has the type of talent that tends to dissolve tribal loyalties. It is explosive, exhilarating. Predictably, the usual suspects are jostling in the queue to claim credit for his emergence.
Harry Redknapp, whose reputation is unravelling with revealing rapidity at Queens Park Rangers, is given to rewriting swathes of football history when it suits. He would prefer us to forget he pigeon-holed Bale as a better, more adventurous left-back than Benoît Assou-Ekotto.
Damien Comolli, the former director of football at Spurs and a semi-detached character who continues to propagate the myth of his legacy at Liverpool, was quick to associate himself with Bale's progression at Tottenham. His portrayal of a resilient character, determined to develop natural gifts, was accurate, but Comolli was a bystander.
Mel Johnson is rather more self-effacing. As Tottenham's chief scout at the time he was instrumental in Bale's move from Southampton. Someone in his trade is football's equivalent of a midwife: he assists in the delivery and then moves on to the next case.
Johnson hasn't spoken to Bale since the day he signed, but his memories of him are vivid: "There was something about the way he held himself. Gareth is everything you'd like a son to be. He looks the part. He speaks well. There are no sleeve tattoos. He's just a fine example of what a young man should be."
I have conducted a series of filmed interviews with Bale since the summer of 2010. The callow figure to whom I was introduced at Pinewood Studios has matured, grown into himself. Then he was involved in a TV advertisement and had been advised to study how Michael Owen, his co-star, handled the alien environment of a film set in hurry-up-and-wait mode.
Initially hesitant in front of a camera, he has learned to relax and express himself better. Celebrity distorts, but another cameo, at a personal appearance in Cardiff, was convincing. He refused to retreat behind the golden rope of a VIP enclosure; he was happy to sit with his family, who remain a source of strength.
Bale has not had it easy. Southampton's academy is a brutal, Darwinian place, which almost cast him out. He is better suited to the meticulous, modern approach of Andre Villas-Boas than the false bonhomie of Redknapp, whose training methods generally lacked focus and intensity.
Comparisons are invidious but inevitable. The most understandable is with Ryan Giggs. They share a heritage and a playing profile. This will be disputed beyond the toll booths on the Severn Bridge, but each has unwittingly helped to typecast Wales as a one-man football team.
Bale is not yet worthy of a podium place alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, but he soon will be.
Silence of Coe isn't as golden as Games
The time-servers denigrated the doubters and propagated the Olympic lie: this would be a land fit for sporting heroes; our flirtation with excellence and endeavour wouldn't be a one-night stand.
So much for empty rhetoric about inspiring a generation. The Olympic legacy has been exposed as a fantasy, and things are only going to get worse.
School sport is a political football leaking hot air. Facilities such as Sheffield's Don Valley Stadium are vulnerable to municipal vandalism, in the guise of cost-cutting. Jessica Ennis began training there as a 10-year-old; her successors cannot run on rubble. Her coach, Tony Minichiello, has been rewarded for producing an Olympic champion with redundancy.
The quangocrats who hold the purse strings have been too busy fighting to protect their little empires, or preparing to pick up their gongs at Buckingham Palace, to care.
By happy coincidence, Sebastian Coe comes from Sheffield. He had a great war, organising a stellar Games, but is losing the peace. As the Prime Minister's legacy adviser, he must choose between politically expedient silence and understandable protest.
He was a gutsy athlete and a doughty fighter in the corridors of power. Has he given up? Say it ain't so, Coe.
Fans putt off
It is an anonymous quote, but one seen on many dressing-room walls: "Losers quit when they're tired. Winners quit when they've won." Rory McIlroy has lost the respect of his golfing peers and the sympathy of his natural supporters by walking off the course in Florida on Friday. He can't run away from life.
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