Just over a week after helping Real Madrid secure their 11th European Cup with victory over rivals Atletico Madrid in Milan, Gareth Bale will go into Wales’ opening match at Euro 2016 this weekend brimming with confidence following an impressive season in the Spanish capital. His performances this season for Los Blancos have gone a long way to winning over supporters who are often quick to get on the back of players struggling for form – especially those brought in from abroad. Something that Bale has been only too familiar with in the past.
Having joined the Spanish giants in 2013 in a world-record £85 million deal from Tottenham, the young Bale was under pressure right from the start of his Madrid career to justify his price tag and deliver success at his new club. Having first came to the attention of Europe’s biggest clubs with a sensational Champions League hat-trick against Inter Milan in 2010, Bale continued to excel over the coming years at Tottenham, with his final season at the club seeing him crowned PFA Player of the Year. It came as no surprise then when Real Madrid came calling that summer offering Bale the opportunity to compete for major honours such as the Champions League. Any pressure that he seemed to be under did not weigh down the 23-year-old in his first season at the club as despite struggling with injuries on occasions, Bale helped Real win two trophies and finished the season with 22 goals and 16 assists in all competitions. Given his price tag, Bale was inevitably brought to Madrid to deliver in the big matches, something that he proved capable of in his first season. The 2014 Copa del Rey final saw Real Madrid meet old rivals Barcelona. With Real superstar Cristiano Ronaldo missing the match through injury, Bale provided the decisive match-winning moment late in the game. With the match evenly poised at 1-1, and with just over five minutes of normal time left, Real’s no.11 picked the ball up in his own half. With Barcelona’s Marc Bartra ahead of him, Bale knocked the ball around the defender before outsprinting his marker and sliding the ball past goalkeeper Pinto to secure Real’s first piece of silverware for the season. Just over a month later and Bale was at it again in a major final. After getting through to their first Champions League final since winning the title in 2002, Real were looking to secure their 10th European Cup title as they played city rivals Atletico in Lisbon. With Diego Simeone’s Atletico side having already secured the league title, bragging rights were firmly at stake for the two Madrid clubs. In a tense final, Atletico took the lead in the first-half through defender Diego Godin only for Real defender Sergio Ramos to head in an equaliser deep into injury time to deny Simeone’s men and take the match into extra-time. Twenty minutes into extra-time and Bale once again underlined his importance with the critical goal in the final, as he headed in from a tight angle after Angel Di Maria’s shot was parried by Atletico keeper Courtois. Real eventually went on to score two more goals in extra-time and with it secured their first Champions League title in 12 years. For Bale, it was a dream ending to a great season where he repaid the faith shown in him at Real and proved himself on the biggest stage.
If Bale’s first season at Real was a dream one, his second campaign proved to be something of a nightmare. Having played an integral role in Real Madrid winning two trophies in his first season at the club, much was expected from the Welshman as he entered the 2014/15 season. However, in what turned out to be a disastrous season for Los Blancos, Bale could not match the achievements of his debut season as he struggled both with injuries and form. In a season where Real failed to secure any major silverware and watched rivals Barcelona complete the treble (league, Champions League, Copa del Rey), Bale became the scapegoat amongst supporters and the media. As if to emphasise Bale’s fall from grace, in big games such as El Clasico and a Champions League semi-final against Juventus he was largely anonymous. Whereas his first season could scarcely have gone better, everything seemed to be going against him at this time, whether it be his form on the pitch or his struggles to grasp a new language – both factors which made him unpopular amongst sections of fans. At this point the rumour mill went into overdrive with media reporting everything from a frosty relationship with superstar team-mate Ronaldo to a move back to England with Manchester United. Towards the end of the 2014/15 season, the chances of him returning to England seemed more and more likely with Bale looking increasingly home-sick to many British fans, including myself. With the man who signed him, Carlo Ancelotti, being sacked as manager following the disappointing season, Bale’s future seemed more unclear than ever.
A new season, and a new start for Gareth Bale. After a summer of constant speculation claiming Real were willing to sell their record buy, the Madrid board reiterated the point that the Welshman was going nowhere, and with new coach Rafa Benitez insisting Bale would be a key player in his team, thing were looking up. Despite all this, it wasn’t long before trouble flared up again within the club. Benitez proved to be something of an unpopular choice as manager amongst the majority of Madrid fans, and despite a strong start to the season, a catastrophic 4-0 defeat to Barcelona at the Bernabeu signalled the beginning of the end of his tenure. With Benitez sacked and replaced by club legend Zinedine Zidane, the pressure was once again put on Bale to prove his worth in the capital. However the Welshman rose to the challenge and continued to win back the support of fans scoring critical goals and creating plenty of chances for his team-mates. With Bale beginning to enjoy his football again he gained redemption amongst the media with a man-of-the-match performance against Barcelona in Real’s 2-1 win at the Nou Camp in April, a result which ended Barcelona’s 39-match unbeaten run and reduced the Catalan side’s lead at the top of La Liga. Going into the final weeks of the season Bale was instrumental in guiding his side to another Champions League final, as well as helping his club chase down Barcelona in the title race. Despite a strong run of form coupled with Barcelona dropping points, Real eventually lost out to their rivals in La Liga but Bale and his team-mates still had something to play for in Milan.
A repeat of the 2014 final, Real’s city rivals had knocked both Barcelona and Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich side out of the competition on their way to the final, and were looking for revenge against the side who had also knocked them out at the quarter-final stage a year earlier. What followed was another tight contest which saw Real take an early lead after Sergio Ramos bundled in a goal from a free-kick headed on by Bale. An Atletico equaliser took the game into extra-time just as in 2014 but this time there would be no winner in the additional half-hour, leaving the 2016 title to be decided on penalties. After 8 successful penalties, Atletico’s Juanfran stepped up only to hit the post and with it hand Ronaldo the opportunity to secure the trophy for Real which he duly did by dispatching his spot-kick into the net. For Bale in particular, this success was vindication for refusing to take the easy option and returning to England, instead staying to win over supporters and achieve more success in the white of Real. In 2014, he scored the decisive goal in the final yet had been subdued for large parts of the game. This year he failed to score, yet was arguably Real’s best player in the match, playing a crucial role in the opening goal and causing Atletico’s defence numerous problems with his skill and pace in attack. Although Ronaldo stole the headlines with his winning penalty in the shootout, it is easy to forget that Bale also stepped up despite suffering from cramp, and maintained his cool to score from the spot. So often over the years, Ronaldo has been the man for the big occasion, yet it was Bale who outshone his iconic team-mate in the San Siro and with it confirmed himself as one of the best players in the world.
At 26, Bale now heads to his first major international tournament and like Ronaldo, will be going there as one of the biggest stars of the tournament. He will be the catalyst for a Wales side looking to progress from a group including Russia, Slovakia and neighbours England, and is going to the Euros having proved he belongs alongside the likes of Ronaldo and Ramos as a true Galactico.