Football Sport

Worth his weight in gold

Written by Leanne Lu

This article first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2013 issue of World Gaming magazine.

The most protracted transfer deal of the summer was finally completed just one day before the transfer window closed. Real Madrid finally succeeded in their pursuit of Tottenham’s Gareth Bale with a €100 million bid. The price eclipsed the €96 million Real paid for Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009, making Bale the first player in history to hit the €100 million mark.

What did Real Madrid just buy with their €100million this summer? None other than the PFA (Professional Footballers’ Association) and FWA (Football Writers’ Association) Player of the Year from last season. 2012/13 was a glorious season in Gareth Bale’s football career as he scored 21 league goals in 33 appearances – the first time he had hit double figures in a season. The award for Player of the Year was contested between Bale, Robin van Persie (26 goals) and Luis Suarez (23 goals) – esteemed company.

But there is far more pressure on Bale to perform at Real – especially given the lengths they have gone to secure him. In order to offset the financial pressure brought about by Bale’s extraordinary deal, Real sold 24-year-old midfielder Mesut Özil to Arsenal. The German has registered 72 assists at club level over the past five years and is clearly one of the best creative players in Europe. He established himself as a favorite of the Bernabéu during that time with his trademark passing and the decision to trade him baffled many Real Madrid fans – will these transfers really benefit the club? What kind player is Gareth Bale after all?

As recently as 2009, a lanky Bale was still fighting with Benoit Assou-Ekotto for Tottenham’s left-back spot. The turning point for the Welshman’s career was a simple change of position with former Spurs manager Harry Redknapp moving Bale from left back to left midfield and eventually wing. Bale might never have made a world class left back as his positioning in defence was questionable at times. However, the new offensive role suited his game as his physical power, speed and acceleration came to the fore.

The 2010/11 Champions League opened the door for Bale to make his name on the international stage, too. On one memorable night in Italy, he humiliated veteran right back Macon at the San Siro with an astonishing hat trick and although it turned out to be a one-off for Spurs in Europe’s top-flight, the journey undoubtedly infused a strong sense of self-confidence in Bale. He hasn’t looked back since. André-Villas Boas, the new Spurs manager, equipped Bale with greater football intelligence. The Portuguese allowed Bale more freedom up front as he alternated between left flank and shadow and he caused so much chaos in the Premier League last season he soon became a nightmare for opposing defenders.

Welsh football rarely exports local players to the continent. The last famous Welsh footballer to establish himself outside England was John Charles, who was a Juventus legend in the 1950s. Bale idolized Welsh left winger Ryan Giggs when he grow up. It makes sense – both players are typical wingers who love hugging the touchline. However, Bale’s physical attributes make him more versatile and therefore more suitable to the modern game.

Speed, dribbling and the ability to cut in – Bale’s game reminds us of another Real Madrid superstar, Cristiano Ronaldo. A more striking similarity is the way they take direct free kicks: the ball always reaches a certain height before suddenly dipping and making a fool of many a goalkeeper. The Brazilian free-kick specialist Juninho was very good at this in Lyon, but he is back home now. Didier Drogba and Andrea Pirlo also tried the same trajectory in their careers with some success, but they couldn’t produce it with the same consistency. In Ronaldo and Bale, on the other hand, we see two specialists of this kind of “whip and dip” free kick.

The major differences between Ronaldo and Bale are age and personality. Bale has just turned 24 – ironically the same age Ronaldo was when he joined Real. The elder statesman is still at his peak and won’t give away his leading role easily, but chairman Florentino Pérez obviously believes he has found the proper replacement for Ronaldo once his Madrid time is over.

Unlike Ronaldo, who always enjoys the spotlight on and off the pitch, Bale is mostly a shy and quiet boy. Tattoos, luxurious brands and the nightlife – these things are often associated with footballers, but not in Bale’s case. His father used to be a school caretaker and a rugby man, so he taught Gareth in a more traditional English way. Bale once recalled how he put on a pair of magnetic earrings as a gag and sat at the kitchen table. He thought his dad was going to kill him, so disgusted was the old man! Bale likes Superdry shirts and G-shock watches. His life away from football is all about golf, PlayStation and family. In last season’s FWA Player of the Year award ceremony, he requested to change the victory speech to a more casual Q & A.

Football is Bale’s comfort zone. On the pitch he rarely feels pressure. He made his Tottenham Hotspur debut in 2007 at the age of 17 at a packed Old Trafford, and “didn’t feel a sense of pressure”. Actually, the word “pressure” somehow baffled Bale, “I just want to play football,” he said. He never lost sleep the night before big games and the stronger the opponents were, the more desire he had to rest and play well. We see a similar composure in all the top footballers.

The football market experienced huge inflation this summer as clubs such as Manchester City, Monaco and Paris Saint-Germain offered unfathomable money for players. We may wonder how much Bale would be worth if not for the influx of cash from the Middle East and Russia, but either way we can no doubt look forward to more magic from Bale’s golden left foot this season.