Having nearly missed the cut at Southampton and a whisker away from being discarded by Tottenham, the world's most expensive footballer now must overcome his biggest challenge yet
By Jay Jaffa
So that's it. Gareth Bale, he of Cardiff birth, Southampton education and Tottenham evolution, is Real Madrid's latest Galactico - and not before time.
The lengthy, often Machiavellian negotiation process grew tiresome but it should not detract from what is essentially the story of an astonishing rise of a talented lad from Wales to the pinnacle of club football.
The road to the Spanish capital and the untold riches that will follow has been far from straightforward, however.
As a scrawny youngster in Southampton's academy, Bale was on the brink of being released after a couple of injury-affected years from the age of 14 to 16. It took an immaculate performance alongside friend and roommate Theo Walcott in the Under-18s' final game of the season to earn him a reprieve.
|BALE'S 2012-13 STATS
PL CHANCES CREATED
Injuries would hamper his progress, though. An ankle ligament injury sustained against Birmingham City in December 2007 required surgery and would keep him out for six months and has been a persistent problem during his time in north London - leading to further lays-off in 2011 and last season.
This has almost been overlooked. Madrid are taking a considerable risk in paying such a premium for a player with his track record - a problem that Harry Redknapp found difficult to deal with in his time at Spurs.
A long-standing back problem underpinned Redknapp's feeling that Bale was a soft touch as any minor niggle sidelined the youngster in his first couple of years, while an ongoing winless Premier League streak saw him labelled a jinx.
After toying with the idea of selling the Welshman - he was mooted as a makeweight in a deal for Stewart Downing in December 2008 - Bale finally made a breakthrough, replacing the injured Benoit Assou-Ekotto at left-back at the end of 2009.
Even after the Cameroonian's return to fitness, Bale stayed in the team and pushed further forward as a left winger as Spurs chased down a top-four place. Two consecutive match-winning goals against Arsenal and Chelsea not only highlighted his goalscoring potential but also secured passage into the Champions League the following year.
And it was in Europe's elite competition that Bale announced himself as a special talent as he romped his way up and down the San Siro pitch, netting a hat-trick against Inter in a 4-3 loss. The signs had been there that this wonderful physical specimen was cut from a different cloth to your average Premier League player but the manner in which he gobbled up the turf and cruised past Maicon and Javier Zanetti made the whole of Europe take note.
His devastating performance on the left flank in the return game only served notice that his feat in Milan was far from a one-off, while team-mate Rafael van der Vaart said: "Everyone is scared of him. Maicon is one of the best defenders in the world and he's killed him."
At this stage Bale was viewed as a winger - despite Redknapp's earlier assertion that he could be "one of the best, if not the best" left-backs in the game - but his influence on games was growing.
If that was his breakthrough year, last season saw confirmation of his star quality.
Andre Villas-Boas's arrival at the club elevated Bale to an entirely different plane, albeit gradually. Though Bale had been tried out in a more central position under Redknapp, it was not until the club's pre-season tour of USA in 2012 that it was cemented as a permanent home.
Interestingly, the idea of Bale as a striker was first suggested by Daniel Levy in one of his early conversations with Villas-Boas. The Portuguese planned to build his first Tottenham team around the Welshman and deployed him out wide in the club's opening three winless fixtures but, over time, his influence from the middle came to the fore - his powerful driving run and finish in the 3-2 win at Old Trafford the first in a long line of stunning solo goals.
The combination of individual greatness and a system designed to open up space in central areas led to Bale scoring 26 times last year as he adapted to the demands of being Tottenham's main man.
The challenge in Madrid will be far more demanding. While playing in the Europa League and dabbling in races for the top four, Bale is yet to win a piece of silverware (bar his personal accolades). He will be thrown into the spotlight and treated much like Cristiano Ronaldo was in 2009 and David Beckham before him.
Much is expected from the Welshman on and off the pitch and it will be intriguing to see how he copes with the added expectation.
Ronaldo always seemed destined for the glitz and glamour of the world's biggest clubs and seamlessly transitioned from United to Madrid but Bale cuts an entirely different image. A quiet man from a well-grounded family, happiest when he is playing football or staying behind at training to hone his free kick technique. His biggest challenge may not be emulating his Premier League form - it will be adopting the persona of a Galactico.
Arsene Wenger once described Bale's form as "cyclical", suggesting that he was a streaky goalscorer, rather than a potent attacking weapon. Last season's form proved that notion wrong and, just like every obstacle thrown in front of the Welshman, he continues to surpass the limits put on him.
Redknapp described him last year as "a genuine world-class player - there's nobody he couldn't play for". Throughout his professional career Bale has shown an inate ability to rise to any challenge put in front of him ... now, by moving to the club at the very top of the list, we will see if he really has no limits.
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