Image credit: Joe Oliver
Gareth Bale was 16 years and 315 days old when he made his debut for Wales in a friendly game against Jamaica. Fresh-faced and clad in the team’s dubious yellow kit, he came on to become the country’s youngest-ever representative – and promptly set up a goal for his side.
Despite this auspicious start, Gareth Bale wasn’t tipped to be a worldwide phenomenon. No one could have predicted that the small left-back would morph into a goal machine snapped up by the richest football club in the world, or that, in a Wales shirt, he would almost single-handedly propel the team to the 2016 edition of the Euros and top the goalscoring charts during the group stage of the competition proper.
The Bale of today bears little resemblance to the Gareth Bale that stepped onto that pitch against Jamaica. Back then, he was built like a reed. But more than his size, he looked timid, as if capable of being overawed by the stage before him. Today he has bulked up considerably and stands 6’0” tall, with a powerful frame, all muscle and sinew. If he was an insignificant figure on the pitch in 2006, he is a completely different animal now: confident, desperate for the ball, a swagger in his stride. Off the pitch he’s the same quietly-spoken lad who enjoys football, friends say. Fame, to his credit, hasn’t changed him, but the world’s gaze as seen him rise into a world superstar rather than shrink from the glare. Like all supreme athletes he seems to thrive under pressure, yet in interviews, he remains quietly-spoken.
Bale’s first big professional contract came when he signed for Tottenham Hotspur in 2007 (he had been with Southampton as a schoolboy). Small and thin, he was a promising left-back and would now be competing for a starting berth with French-Cameroonian Benoit Assou-Ekotto. Five years his senior, Assou-Ekotto was a good but unspectacular player, and yet obdurate enough to keep the Welshman out of the team. The sporadic appearances Bale did make culminated in him racking up a dubious record: in his first 24 matches, he side did not win a single game. It caught the attention of Sir Alex Ferguson, then of Manchester United, who would go as far as to label Bale a “jinx”.
All that changed when Spurs – and Bale – tasted their first win together in 2-0 win over Fulham in January 2010. The monkey was off his back, but he was also making a curious transformation: under the guidance of Harry ‘Arry Redknapp, Bale was eyeing out a role further up the pitch, away from Assou-Ekotto, closer to goal, where his burgeoning athleticism could help him make a bigger difference on matches.
In October 2010, Inter Milan came to town for a Champions League match against Tottenham. Inter were a Rolls Royce team, steeped in history, and deemed formidable opposition for a Spurs side that had done well to make it into the competition. And, as per the script, the Londoners were soon struggling as Inter surged into an early lead: 1, 2, 3, 4 goals without reply, 35 minutes on the clock, and Spurs down to ten men.
There was nothing to lose now, only pride, and the stage was set for Bale to announce himself to the world. His first strike, the result of a scything run down the wing at breathtaking speed, ended with a shot lasered across the face of goal and past a hapless Julio Cesar. The second, hit from the same angle, roared past Cesar again as the evergreen Zanetti desperately chased Bale’s shadow. By the time he struck the third, 91 minutes were on the clock and the match was over, but Bale’s career was just beginning. Spurs had lost but a star had been born; a player they were never likely to be able to keep.
Gareth Frank Bale had risen, phoneix-like, to score a hat-trick of unbelievable athleticism and poise, terrorizing the more experienced opposition. Up against Javier Zanetti, Maicon, Julio Cesar, three of the most battle-hardened players in history, he made them look ordinary.
It was the sort of performance you don’t forget, seared into the memory of the watching world. Football fans around the globe were now sitting bolt upright…
…To be continued.