Bale completes journey from Spurs misfit to Madrid
It was only four years ago that Gareth Bale was being labeled a jinx and a flop, and faced being offloaded on the cheap by Tottenham.
Now he is the most expensive player in the history of football, with a price tag of 100 million euros ($132 million) hanging heavy on his shoulders.
That's some turnaround.
It's been a bumpy journey at times from south Wales to the Spanish capital. But the 24-year-old Bale will now have to get used to having the superstar status afforded Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, which may be alien to a down-to-earth Welshman whose long-time partner is a childhood sweetheart from their native Cardiff.
Real Madrid confirmed Sunday it had signed Bale following the longest transfer saga of the summer, with a person familiar with the deal saying the fee was a world-record 100 million euros ($132 million). The person spoke on condition of anonymity because financial details are not being disclosed.
For the past three years, Bale has been wowing global audiences with his long-range strikes, swerving free kicks, defense-splitting surges and mesmerizing footwork for Tottenham in both the Premier League and - for one season - the Champions League.
But it wasn't always that way.
In May 2007, Tottenham paid 5 million pounds (then $8 million) to bring a spindly 17-year-old from Southampton, a south-coast club then playing in England's second tier which had signed Bale to its academy two years earlier. At that stage, he was a novice left back and prone to injury, but at the same time Wales' youngest ever international and a player of rich promise.
His electric pace was already well-known, for he was runner-up over 50 meters at the national under-11s championship in Wales. In fact, he was a strong all-round sportsman, excelling at football and athletics in particular during his school days in a suburb of the Welsh capital and striking up a friendship with current Wales rugby captain Sam Warburton that lasts to this day.
He came from a modest background - his father, Frank, was a school caretaker - but he had quickly reached the big time with his move to Spurs.
Yet his career threatened to stall completely at White Hart Lane.
Although he scored three times in his first four starts, the disillusioned, alice-band-wearing teenager endured more than 1,500 minutes on the pitch across 28 months before finally featuring on a winning side in the Premier League for Spurs. A series of injuries was stunting his progress and he became a symbol of poor results until emerging as a substitute 84 minutes into his 25th Premier League game - a 5-0 rout of Burnley.
The then-Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp has acknowledged almost giving up on Bale, who was seen as a potential make-weight in deals to bring in new players. Within a couple of years, Spurs couldn't act quicker to keep hold of their rising star.
After shaking off his substitute's role by the start of 2010, Bale began to consistently show the flair and devastating speed that displaced left back Benoit Assou-Ekotto from the starting lineup. And as the attacking side of Bale's game began to flourish, Redknapp pushed Bale onto the left wing. It proved to be an inspired move.
Having helped steer Tottenham into the Champions League for the first time in May that year, Bale was rewarded with a lucrative new deal - the first of three successive annual contract upgrades - and announced himself to the world with two dazzling displays against Champions League holder Inter Milan in the group stage in the 2010-11 season.
It included a hat trick at the San Siro and then another virtuoso performance in the return match at White Hart Lane, where he gave Brazil right back Maicon one of the toughest nights of his life.
A star was born.
As Tottenham fought off interest from rival teams, Bale was named the 2011 player of the year in England by his footballing peers. He bulked up, his 6-foot-1-inch frame became more and more muscular in and he soon began to outgrow Tottenham, with the team failing to return to the Champions League despite his goal-scoring prowess and searing pace.
His importance to the London club was underscored last season by the fact his 21 leagues goals helped win 22 points for Spurs, although they still finished a place outside the top four.
Bale is still not the complete footballer. His right foot could be stronger and he doesn't have the presence in the air that Ronaldo - his idol - has. He also has a penchant for diving in an attempt to win penalties or free kicks, something that has earned him a string of yellow cards in the past two seasons and blotted his reputation somewhat.
But his improvement since 2010 has been nothing short of phenomenal.
It's no surprise that Real Madrid have come calling - he has been widely seen as a ''Real type'' of player because of his power and pace - and he couldn't turn them down, even going as far as giving Spurs the silent treatment while a deal was struck. Often pictured this summer sulking and rarely smiling, his failure to turn up to training for the final days of his Tottenham career has hardly enamored him with the average football fan given his already-vast wages.
However, Spurs chairman Daniel Levy is a notoriously hard bargainer in the transfer market and wasn't going to let his prized asset go easily. The fee he has claimed for Bale is viewed by many pundits as far too high.
With Wales unlikely to qualify for a major international tournament anytime soon, it's at club level where Bale will have to make his mark, just like Ian Rush, Mark Hughes and Ryan Giggs did before him.
And he is doing just that.
He promotes computer games, was on the front cover of Esquire last month and has even filed an application to trademark his goal celebration - a heart-shaped hand gesture he dedicates to his girlfriend - to use on merchandise. More of the same will surely come his way during his time at Madrid.