By Peter Staunton
Gareth Bale is not yet the best player on the planet, but he's getting there. Former Tottenham Hotspur favourite, David Ginola, agrees. "Well what can I say about him?," he told Goal. "Young Player of the Year, Players' Player of the Year, one of the best players in the world."
Beneath the immovable top two, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, there is a group of contenders for the consolation prizes. Robin van Persie and Franck Ribery are among them. So too is the Welshman. What separates Bale from all the others now is on-field success and, crucially, a place at one of Europe's biggest teams.
Both Ronaldo and Messi were Ballon d'Or winners by the time they were Bale's age, 24, and both had won the Champions League as well as any number of league prizes. Bale? He's had one season in the Champions League. His honours list is an insult to his talents.
He has just enjoyed his best season to date on a personal level. Bale scored 21 Premier League goals from midfield and went within a hair's breadth of qualifying Tottenham for the Champions League, deservedly winning all the individual accolades on offer and reaching No.6 in the Goal 50 list. But his Herculean efforts were not enough for Spurs on the collective level. Andre Villas-Boas turned to him at every moment of difficulty. He didn't let his coach down. But it could be argued Spurs let him down.
The club have been good to him. He's developed well there since shaking off his horrid winless curse and delivering on the potential he showed at Southampton. But it is apparent now that Bale is considering a career away from White Hart Lane.
He knows he should be playing in the Champions League. Moreover, a player of his calibre deserves to be winning it. He should be challenging for league titles not for fourth place. He will not become the best player in the world at Spurs. He will do so at the Bernabeu.
One of the most challenging periods in any young player's career is the one that Bale has just gone through. From emerging onto the club scene it is a deceptively long, precipitous road to the top. There are no guarantees that just because a player was effective at 19 he will be at 25. But Bale has outgrown Spurs, such is his dizzying trajectory. He has grown up too fast for them. The best players have to play at the best clubs.
Neymar, for example; a prodigiously gifted young player and by the time the 2013 Brasileirao kicked off it was widely agreed that he had become too good for his native league and for his beloved Santos. To continue to make an impact and grow and develop would have been impossible at Vila Belmiro. He needed to take that next step.
And he has done so by taking on a hugely challenging but potentially rewarding transfer to Barcelona. His time came and he took his chance. After winning the Copa Libertadores and going to the final of the Club World Cup there was not an awful lot more he could do with Santos. No-one could blame Gareth Bale for seeing things similarly. Spurs will not challenge for the league so what is the best he can hope for by staying there?
Thomas Muller has just won the treble with Bayern Munich and looks like he will be among the most highly-regarded players in the world for the next decade. The perfect physical specimen, just like Bale, Muller is a throwback to some of the great lung-busting German midfielders from the seventies and eighties. Compatriot Mario Gotze is no longer 'promising' having established himself as a top-class attacking midfielder at Borussia Dortmund. Something far more exacting is now demanded of him: proving himself at Bayern.
Gotze's ex-colleague Ilkay Gundogan continues on his quest to marshal the Germany midfield alongside Bastian Schweinsteiger and hold the fort for Dortmund in the Bundesliga and abroad. The 22-year-old oozes class in the centre of the park. Thibaut Courtois has another season to show Jose Mourinho he is ready to dislodge Petr Cech at Chelsea. The Belgian is tipped by many as potentially the best goalkeeper in the world in the future.
Meanwhile, Isco and Raphael Varane lead the best young generation at Real Madrid for over a decade after exploding onto the scene last season. The former possesses every attribute needed for an attacking midfielder - skill, creativity, dribbling, a fine shot. The latter has every quality required for a modern defender - pace, power, height, tackling, as well as an old-school intelligence and reading of the game.
Those players, all younger than Bale, have moved on; moved up. This is the new generation, taking their first significant steps in the game and bringing with them the adulation, hopes and expectations of millions. Some will fall down the pecking order. Others will come from nowhere, blooming late. Excellent prospects will continue to be produced.
What they need, thereafter, is the right club, the right environment for their football to grow. And the right environment for Bale is Real Madrid.