It was on the night of the 16th April 2014 at the Copa Del Rey final in Mestalla that a 24-year-old Welshman took the footballing world by storm.
The game was deadlocked at 1-1 in El Clasico. Gareth Bale, purchased from Premier League side Spurs for a world-record fee of €100.8 million, received the ball on the left wing and galloped towards goal with six minutes remaining.
The youngster then showed a blistering burst of pace to beat Barcelona defender Marc Bartra, run through on goal and score one of the most iconic goals in footballing history, in the process winning the Copa Del Rey for his side.
It appeared that the world’s most expensive footballer had justified his exorbitant price tag.
Fast forward five years and it appears everything has gone south for the Cardiff-born winger.
Now on the fringes of the Real Madrid squad, plagued by injuries and struggling to find a new club, it would be safe to say that Bale has joined the lengthy list of footballers who failed to achieve their true potential.
We take a look at the journey of the highly-rated winger, from Cardiff all the way to Madrid.
Early life and career at Southampton
Born in Cardiff in 1989, Bale was the nephew of former Cardiff City footballer Chris Pike.
He showed an interest towards athletics, running the 100-metre in 11.4 seconds as a fourteen-year-old.
Bale’s commitment to sporting prowess was clear to see from an early age, as his school PE teacher Gwyn Morris later explained:
Gareth has a fierce determination to succeed and has the character and qualities to achieve his personal goals. He is one of the most unselfish individuals that I have had the pleasure to help educate.
After signing for Southampton in 2006, Bale became the second youngest player ever to play for Southampton.
Playing as a left back, four of his first five goals for the side were from set pieces, and he was soon recognised as one of the best free-kick takers in England, despite being a mere 17 years of age.
He made his debut for his country and became the youngest player to play for Wales.
His contributions did not go unrecognized as he was awarded several individual honors, including the BBC Wales Young Sports Personality of the Year.
Move to Tottenham Hotspur
Other clubs soon started taking notice of Bale’s performances for Southampton, and it was Tottenham who signed the youngster in 2007 for a fee of £5 million, which would soon be considered as a bargain.
His career at White Heart lane began swiftly as the Welshman was quick to adjust to life in London.
However, in December 2007, Bale suffered his first major injury which kept him out for the remainder of the season.
Similar patterns followed in the next few seasons, with Bale showing glimpses of his true potential only for his run to be halted abruptly by injuries, one of which resulted in a surgery in 2009.
However, in early 2010, Bale had a remarkable run of form which culminated in him winning the Player of the Month for April 2010, and a new four-year contract at the club.
I’m ambitious, I want to play in the Champions League, and that’s the aim with Tottenham – to start qualifying for the Champions League on a consistent basis.
His exceptional form continued throughout the next two years as he scored his first career hat-trick against European champions Inter Milan at the San Siro.
Individual honours kept coming his way as he was awarded the Welsh Player of the Year and the PFA Players’ Player of the Year award for the 2010-11 season.
Bale rose to further international attention during Spurs’ run to the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
Bale’s form showed no signs of fading as he once again starred in the next two seasons for Tottenham, scoring goals at will.
In 2013, he switched from the left-back to the left-wing and switched his squad number from 3 to 11.
He guided Spurs to a third-place finish and continued to gather individual honours, aided by his blistering pace, powerful long shots and masterful free kicks.
Transfer to Real Madrid
Bale’s form and talent meant it was only natural that he was soon wanted by several major clubs across Europe.
However, Tottenham were extremely reluctant to let go of their prized asset and it took a mammoth €100 million offer from Real Madrid to convince them to part ways with their prized asset.
This broke Cristiano Ronaldo’s transfer record fee of £80 million and made Bale the costliest player of all time.
I probably prefer Spanish football to the others. It’s very technical, the way they play; they keep the ball well, and whenever Spurs have played against Spanish teams in the past, they’ve always made it difficult for us.
Bale struggled with injuries in his first season at Madrid, however he regained his form in the second half of the season and ended his debut season with a staggering 22 goals and 16 assists in all competitions.
He started the 2014-15 season in good form too, but soon another injury restricted his playing time for the season.
The next couple of seasons were similar, Bale showed exceptional talent and helped his team to the Champions League trophy, but was absent for large parts of the season due to injuries.
Dip in form
Soon, questions were raised over Bale’s consistency and his inability to deliver in key games was seen as a major disadvantage for the team.
Despite being the shining star for his country as Wales made the semi-finals of UEFA Euro 2016, back in Spain, his performances became increasingly inconsistent and he was even booed by a section of Madrid fans in several matches.
His injury troubles did not help his cause and though he managed 16 La Liga goals in the 2017-18 season, question marks over his consistency remained.
Ronaldo’s transfer to Juventus in 2018 paved the way for Bale to star for the team.
However, Bale failed to grasp the opportunity and was instead gradually dropped to the bench with new signing Vinicius Junior preferred on the wing.
The return of Zinedine Zidane as manager further complicated things, with the two known to share a frosty relationship off the pitch.
Bale’s career hit breaking point in the latter half of the 2018-2019 season when he was restricted to the bench most of the time. Talks of a move in the summer transfer window have increased.
However, Bale’s hefty wages, injury history and poor form has led to few clubs expressing interest.
The Welshman himself is adamant to fight for his place at Madrid, a claim that looks increasingly doubtful given his history with Zidane and the recent arrival of Eden Hazard.
Only time will tell where Bale will end up next season.
At the age of 29, Bale still has a few more years left at the top level and few will question his talent.
If he ends up getting game time, at any club, he definitely possesses the ability to change the course of a match, as he has shown so many times in the past.
So major clubs around Europe should take notice and even at his hefty wages, Bale could very well turn out to be a bargain.