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Saint, Galactico, Welsh hero: The evolution of Wales captain Gareth Bale

Evolution of Gareth Bale

Trawl through the BBC Wales Today archives and you might find a 16-year-old Gareth Bale leaving his parents’ house in Cardiff and being driven to Southampton for a training session.

Long before making the man bun his signature look, the fresh-faced Bale is sporting an Inbetweeners quiff as he sits in the back of the car, discussing his future in the game with a croaky adolescent voice which is still some way from breaking.

Seventeen years on – and five Champions League titles, two major international tournaments and a vast array of individual accolades later – Bale is set to become the first man to captain Wales at a World Cup since 1958.

By now, the 33-year-old is a modern great; his country’s all-time leading scorer in men’s football and a globally recognised figure who has shone on the grandest stages in the club game.

This is the story of how Bale came to this point, delving into five key stages in the evolution of a football icon.

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A teenage Beckham at left-back

It’s the opening day of the 2006-07 Championship season and Derby County’s Pride Park is a picture as warm August sunshine lights the pristine green turf.

An hour into the game a gentle hum emanates from the stands, the home fans content as their team lead 1-0, seemingly unconcerned as Southampton’s teenage left-back stands over a free-kick around 25 yards from goal.

That 17-year-old is Gareth Bale, starting only his second game as a professional. He swings his left foot at the ball and arcs it beyond the reach of Lee Camp into the top right-hand corner, a sublime goal.

Three days later, he scores with another free-kick against Coventry City, 10 yards further out but again struck with the precision and curl to leave another goalkeeper, Andy Marshall, floundering.

If Bale was a relative unknown before the season started, plenty are taking notice after two games.

Gareth Bale celebrates scoring for Southampton at Derby in 2006
Bale celebrates his first senior goal, a free-kick for Southampton at Derby in 2006

Not that Wales need reminding. By this stage Bale is already his country’s then-youngest senior international having appeared as a substitute against Trinidad and Tobago in May 2006, two months before his 17th birthday.

Bale then breaks another record in October, becoming Wales’ youngest goalscorer with another curling free-kick – fast-becoming a trademark – to offer fans at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium a ray of hope during an otherwise demoralising 5-1 thrashing by Slovakia.

It is striking how similar the three goals are: all measured, meticulously lifted over the wall and curling from left to right.

“Gareth is a special one,” says George Burley, Southampton’s manager at the time. “He has got attributes that top players haven’t, like his quality of free-kicks, which is like David Beckham.”

A decade later Bale would spearhead Wales’ epic journey to the Euro 2016 semi-finals thanks in part to yet more free-kick goals – but struck with a new style.

Gone was the Beckham-esque curl and control and in its place was the power, dip and vicious swerve that the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Didier Drogba had popularised.

Asked during Euro 2016 why he had abandoned his original approach, Bale simply shrugged and said he found it “boring”.

Ten years apart, the changes to his free-kick technique demonstrated how Bale could transform his game over the course of a stellar career; a player of rare – and metamorphosing – quality.

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From Spurs outcast to Champions League menace

It is a scene which has by now acquired near mythical status in Champions League lore.

Tottenham are 4-0 down at Inter Milan in 2010 when a 21-year-old Bale announces to the world his spectacular conversion from left-back to marauding winger.

Still wearing number three on his back, Bale’s first goal is essentially a one-man counter-attack, bursting clear of Inter’s defenders and into the penalty area before drilling a left-footed finish into the far bottom corner.

The second is nearly identical, again beating the great Javier Zanetti on the outside before whipping in with his left foot, and then the third is a first-time effort rifled low into the same corner.

The hat-trick was in vain as Spurs lost 4-3 but Bale was arguably even better against the same opponents at White Hart Lane two weeks later as he terrorised Brazilian right-back Maicon and created two goals in a rousing 3-1 win.

Gareth Bale and Maicon
Bale (here taking on Inter’s Maicon) scored 55 goals in 203 appearances during his first stint with Spurs

It was some statement from a player whose difficult start at the club had even led the manager at the time, Harry Redknapp, to wonder if he was cursed.

Tottenham had seen off competition from clubs such as Manchester United to sign Bale in 2007 but he initially struggled with injuries and a statistical quirk that showed he had failed to win a Premier League game over the course of two years and 24 fixtures.

Redknapp admitted that losing record had made him reluctant to select Bale – who was reportedly close to leaving Spurs – but the turnaround was stunning.

The performances against Inter would become a template for Bale, who combined his blistering pace and direct running with an ability to score with long-range thunderbolts.

It was a potent mix which made Bale unplayable at times. He was voted PFA Players’ Player of the Year in 2011 and again two years later, this time alongside the PFA Young Player of the Year and Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year awards.

Having conquered the Premier League and dazzled in Europe, Bale was ready for the next stage of his journey.

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Ascending to Galactico status – for club and country

Real Madrid made Bale the world’s most expensive footballer when they paid Tottenham £85.3m to sign him in 2013.

If his otherworldly feats at Spurs had given Bale a swagger, becoming a Galactico imbued him with an air of invincibility.

That was evident when he returned home to play for Wales, even in the kind of friendly match some of his club colleagues may have snubbed.

Iceland visited Cardiff City Stadium in March 2014 and, as Wales led 2-1 with 20 minutes left, Bale picked up possession deep in his own half near the right touchline.

He was momentarily forced off the pitch by an attempted foul from Solvi Ottesen but stayed on his feet, surged forward into the penalty area, cut inside on to his left foot and fired into the bottom corner.

“I just asked him for an autograph and a photo,” Chris Coleman, Wales’ then-manager, joked after the game. “He’s one of the best I’ve seen. An unbelievable player.”

Gareth Bale scores in the 2014 Champions League final
Bale gave Real Madrid an extra-time lead in their 2014 Champions League final win over Atletico Madrid

Bale was making a habit of embarrassing opponents and, as if to prove he could do the same to anyone, a month later he scored with a mirror image in one of football’s most storied fixtures.

Real faced arch rivals Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final and were drawing 1-1 with five minutes left when Bale again received the ball inside his own half, this time on the left.

Barcelona defender Marc Bartra tried desperately to drag him down but Bale shrugged him off and, despite again being briefly forced off the field, he motored into the box and poked the ball past goalkeeper Jose Pinto to spark ecstatic celebrations.

The goal earned Bale his first trophy with Real and, one month on, he had his second as he scored in the Champions League final victory over Atletico Madrid.

As Bale and his team-mates returned to Madrid to celebrate with a trophy presentation at a sold-out Bernabeu, the Welshman was in his element.

He had finished his first season with 22 goals and would follow that with 18 in his second campaign – but there was turbulence ahead.

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Jeered in Madrid, loved in Wales

Bale won five Champions League and three La Liga titles – as well as several other domestic and international cups – during his nine years with Real Madrid.

During the second half of that period, however, his relationship with the club became strained as injuries affected his form, while the Spanish media and Real’s fans were unforgiving in their criticism.

Even as he was pushed to the periphery, Bale could still conjure flashes of genius at critical moments, such as the outrageous overhead kick he scored after coming on as a substitute in the 2018 Champions League final win over Liverpool.

Yet it was still clear he was unhappy. In an interview on the pitch afterwards, Bale said he was already contemplating a future away from Madrid.

Gareth Bale
Bale scored twice against Liverpool in the 2018 Champions League final, including a stunning overhead kick

It would take another four years before he would leave Real permanently and, although Bale ignored the jeers of his own club’s fans to continue playing at the Bernabeu, his opportunities to return home and play for Wales became a soothing antidote to the hostility he faced in Spain.

At this stage, Bale had already established himself as a Welsh icon, but this particular period brought him closer to his country and its supporters.

Wales fans already loved Bale for all he had achieved, most notably his pivotal role in helping the team qualify for Euro 2016 – their first major tournament for 58 years – and then the inspirational performances he produced on their momentous run to the semi-finals in France.

When he was confronted with such a fraught situation in Madrid, however, it was clear that Bale needed Wales as much as this footballing nation needed its talisman.

Wales fans followed events in Spain and felt increasingly protective of a player they idolised, one they felt was being treated unfairly at his club.

Bale felt that love and was not afraid to show where his truest loyalties lay.

On the eve of a Euro 2020 qualifier in Azerbaijan in November 2019, having endured the latest round of criticism from Spanish media, he said: “I definitely have a bit more excitement playing for Wales.”

That irritated Real’s former striker and director of football, Predrag Mijatovic, who claimed Bale prioritised Wales – and even his interest in golf – over his club side.

That prompted one Wales fan to print a flag, which he displayed at a match against Hungary just days later, reading: “Wales. Golf. Madrid. In that order.” After Wales beat Hungary to seal qualification for Euro 2020, Bale was handed the banner and was pictured holding it alongside his team-mates.

That was effectively the end for Bale and Real Madrid. Not that it affected the man himself, whose commitment to his country was not up for debate, and it only enhanced his legend among Wales fans.

The episode heralded another chapter in Bale’s development: the unapologetic national figurehead.

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The moments man who still writes his own scripts

As Bale entered the autumn of his career – and the final throes of his time with Real Madrid – he found himself in the unusual position of playing more regularly for his country than his club.

Last season, he made 10 appearances for Wales and only seven for Real. This disparity meant that before Wales’ World Cup play-off semi-final against Austria in March this year, Bale had played just two hours of football in six months for Real.

With Wales two wins away from qualifying for a first World Cup since 1958, there were concerns that their captain was undercooked.

Then Bale reminded everyone that he writes his own scripts.

There were some familiar motifs to this latest Bale screenplay: more criticism from Spain (described as a “parasite” this time for prioritising Wales over Real), a high-stakes situation and the logic-defying ability to summon moments of staggering brilliance when they are needed most.

The first goal was plucked right from the greatest hits – a sumptuous 25-yard free-kick lashed into the top corner – and the second was from closer range but of similar majesty, hit on the run and with equal precision.

Gareth Bale celebrates scoring for Wales against Austria in 2022
Bale is Wales’ all-time leading scorer in men’s football with 40 goals from 108 caps

This is the latest iteration of Bale. The pace has faded, as has Bale’s ability – and appetite – to run at defenders.

But now at the age of 33, Bale still has an arsenal of weapons which compensate for the gradual decline of his previous physical superpowers.

His technique remains exemplary, as does his aerial ability and eye for a spectacular long-range strike, while his greater nous and experience means he is now more selective with his movements.

With all this intact, Bale still has an aura. His mere presence continues to unsettle opponents.

It perhaps explains why Ukraine captain Andriy Yarmolenko threw himself towards Bale’s free-kick and diverted it into his own net to hand Wales the only goal in their World Cup play-off final in June.

Bale admitted after the game that he was some way off his best but, in that moment, once more he was able to decide the result by sheer force of personality.

Later that month, after a long and drawn out exit from Real Madrid, he joined Los Angeles FC and, while injuries continue to limit his playing time, Bale is happy to be at a club where he feels valued and wanted.

Wales, meanwhile, are thankful for this generational talent they still have.

Bale said at the beginning of this campaign that playing at a World Cup was his greatest remaining ambition. Now he is just days away from realising that dream.

The captain has hinted he could continue playing international football at Euro 2024 and beyond, so the World Cup may not be his final act – but it feels like the missing piece.

Bale is no longer the electrifying Tottenham winger who tormented defences in the Premier League and across Europe, nor is he the all-action Galactico who scored some of Real Madrid’s most iconic goals of the past decade – but he remains a phenomenon who can still bend the course of a match to his will.

Wales do not mourn who Bale no longer is, they celebrate all that he has done, and cherish the player he is today.