Real Madrid take on city neighbours Atletico Madrid this weekend in the hope of being crowned kings of Europe for a tenth time. It has been twelve years since Zinedine Zidane produced that unforgettable volley to win the Champions League for Real Madrid at Hampden Park. Zidane was the most expensive player in the world at the time and it was a goal that sent him well on the way to becoming a Real legend. On Saturday night in Lisbon, the world’s current costliest footballer will take to the field hoping to emulate the great Frenchman.
For Gareth Bale these are the kind of nights he had always dreamt of as a young Real fan watching his heroes in white on TV back in Wales. Cardiff-born Bale had his first taste of playing amongst Europe’s elite with Tottenham back in 2010, and it was in that campaign that Bale exploded onto the world scene. At the San Siro against reigning champions Inter Milan, Bale scored a scintillating hat-trick and followed that up in the return leg with another outstanding display that tore Brazilian international Maicon apart. Bale had shown that he truly belonged at the highest level.
Tottenham’s unexpected run that season ended when they crashed out to Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid side but underdogs Spurs had won new admirers all over Europe as they made their way to the quarter finals eliminating more fancied opponents along the way. It was Bale who caught the attention most of all though, and numerous clubs on the continent were all starting to sit up and take notice. It was clear this was a player that doesn’t come round too often.
Unfortunately for Bale he would have to wait two more years to test himself against Europe’s elite again. Spurs narrowly missed out on qualification in 2012 and 2013 but in the Premiership Bale was coming into his own. Last season in particular saw the Welshman step up and take his game to a whole new level scoring 26 goals, and at times almost single-handedly winning games for Andre Villa Boas’ side.
Even Bale’s heroics were not enough to see Tottenham grasp a place in the top four though and the Lilywhites had to make do with fifth spot and a Europa League place. It was becoming clear that a player of Bale’s talent was outgrowing Spurs and Thursday nights in the Europa.
It wasn’t long before Real Madrid came calling with a world record bid of £85 million.The fee was an enormous outlay to make but Madrid president Florentino Perez could see this was a talent that, at 24, had the potential to go on and become a Madrid legend. Credit must be given to Bale for being eager to see the move materialise too. Many British players in the Premiership seem content to spend all of their career in England without testing themselves in a different league and culture. Bale however was determined to emerge from the comfort zone and go on to succeed at what many perceive to be the biggest club in the world.
Despite scoring on his debut against Villareal, Bale had a relatively slow start to life at the Bernabeu due to being in and out of the team through injury. Since the turn of the year though, Bale has started to produce the kind of form that persuaded Madrid to spend big and now has a highly impressive 21 goals and 16 assists to his name. Alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema, Bale is part of a potent strike force which has registered ninety-five goals in all competitions this season.
Even after raising his performance levels, up until last month the Bernabeu faithful still hadn’t quite taken their world-record signing to their hearts. There was a feeling in Madrid that despite all the goals and assists, Bale wasn’t producing enough in the big games and cited a tendency to go missing at times. Bale went some way to changing that though when he scored the winning goal in the Copa del Rey final against arch-rivals Barcelona. It was a breathtaking moment that fully displayed Bale’s explosive pace, and in that instant thousands of Madridistas had found a special place in their hearts for the flying Welshman.
Diego Simeone’s hard working Atletico side will attempt to shackle Bale by denying him the space he likes, and he has found it tough in the side’s two league meetings this season. As Inter and Barcelona will testify though, Bale has shown he is a man who thrives on the big occasion and they don’t come much bigger than the Champions League final.
If on Saturday night the lad from Cardiff can conjure up a moment as special as that of Zidane’s in Glasgow, then like the Frenchman, he too will have proven to be worth every penny of that mammoth transfer fee in the eyes of Real Madrid fans.