You might catch a 16-year-old Gareth Bale leaving his parents’ Cardiff home and being transported to Southampton for a training session if you go through the Today Sports News archives.
The young Bale is sporting an Inbetweeners quiff as he sits in the back of the car and discusses his future in the game with a croaky adolescent voice that is still a long way from cracking, long before making the man bun his signature look.
Bale was the first person to captain Wales at a World Cup since 1958 17 years later, after winning five Champions League championships, two significant international competitions, and a plethora of individual honours.
After 17 years, five Champions League victories, two important international competitions, and a plethora of individual honours, Bale became the first man to captain Wales at a World Cup since 1958.
This is the account of Bale’s journey to this point, focusing on five crucial phases in the development of a football legend.
Beckham as a teen at left back
Derby County’s Pride Park is picture-perfect on the first day of the 2006–07 Championship campaign as the virgin green pitch is illuminated by warm August sunshine.
The home crowd is satisfied with their team’s 1-0 lead after an hour of play, and they are not at all alarmed by Southampton’s teenage left-back standing over a free kick that is approximately 25 yards from the goal.
Gareth Bale, who is only 17 years old, is starting his second game as a pro. He strikes the ball with his left foot, swinging it past Lee Camp’s reach and into the top right corner for an exquisite goal.
Three days later, he defeats Coventry City with a second free-kick that is taken from a distance of ten yards, this time with the same accuracy and curl that leaves Andy Marshall, the opposing goalie, helpless.
Before the season began, Bale was hardly unknown, but after two games, many are paying attention.
Wales already knows this, after all. As of this point, Bale is the then-youngest senior international for his country, having played as a substitute against Trinidad & Tobago in May 2006, two months before turning 17.
Bale then establishes another record in October, becoming Wales’ youngest goal scorer with yet another spectacular curling free-kick to give supporters at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium some reason to cheer amid Slovakia’s otherwise demoralising 5-1 thumping.
The similarities between the three goals are startling: they are all measured, painstakingly lifted over the wall, and curl from left to right.
Gareth is a rare one, according to Southampton’s manager at the time, George Burley. “He possesses qualities that top players lack, like as the calibre of his free kicks, which are comparable to David Beckham’s.”
A decade later, Bale would lead Wales on an incredible journey to the semifinals of the Euro 2016 tournament, in part because to further free-kick goals that he scored with a new flair.
The power, dip, and nasty swerve popularised by players like Didier Drogba and Cristiano Ronaldo replaced the Beckham-like curl and control.
When asked why he had changed his strategy at Euro 2016, Bale just shrugged and responded that it was “boring.”
The modifications to his free-kick technique, made ten years apart, showed how Bale could develop his game throughout the course of a distinguished career; a player of exceptional – and metamorphosing – quality.
From Spurs outcast to Champions League menace
It is a situation that has almost reached mythical status in Champions League lore by this point.
When a 21-year-old Bale proclaims to the world his stunning transformation from left-back to rampaging winger at Inter Milan in 2010, Tottenham is down 4-0.
Bale’s first goal is essentially a one-man counterattack; he bursts past Inter’s defenders and into the penalty area before hammering a left-footed shot into the far bottom corner while still sporting the number three on his back.
The second shot is almost identical to the first, beating Javier Zanetti again on the outside before whipping it in with his left foot. The third shot is a first-time attempt that is rifled low into the same corner.
The hat-trick was ineffective as Spurs lost 4-3, but two weeks later at White Hart Lane, Bale was arguably even better in a thrilling 3-1 victory over the same opponents after terrorising Brazilian right-back Maicon.
It was an interesting statement coming from a player whose rocky beginnings at the club had even caused the then-manager Harry Redknapp to wonder if the player was cursed.
Bale was originally troubled by injuries and a statistical anomaly that revealed he had failed to win a Premier League game over the course of two years and 24 matches. Tottenham had beat off clubs like Manchester United to capture Bale in 2007.
Redknapp acknowledged that his team’s dismal record had prevented him from choosing Bale, who was rumoured to be close to leaving Spurs, but the reversal was amazing.
Bale would take inspiration from his performances against Inter, combining his lightning-quick speed and straight running with the ability to score with long-range thunderbolts.
It was a lethal combination that at times rendered Bale unplayable. In 2011 and again in 2013, this time alongside the PFA Young Player of the Year and Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year awards, he was chosen as the PFA Players’ Player of the Year.
Bale was prepared for the following phase of his journey after dominating the Premier League and shining in Europe.
Ascending to Galactico status – for club and country
When Real Madrid paid Tottenham £85.3 million to get Bale in 2013, he became the most expensive football player in the world.
Bale’s supernatural performances for Spurs had already given him a swagger, but becoming a Galactico gave him an air of invincibility.
That became clear when he travelled back to his native Wales to compete in a friendly game—a contest that some of his club teammates may have shunned.
In March 2014, Iceland played a match at Cardiff City Stadium. With 20 minutes remaining and Wales leading 2-1, Bale gained control of the ball deep inside his own half, close to the right touchline.
He was momentarily forced off the pitch by an attempted foul from Solvi Ottesen but stayed on his feet, surged forward into the penalty area, cut inside on to his left foot and fired into the bottom corner.
Chris Coleman, then-manager of Wales, made light of the situation by saying, “I just asked him for a signature and a picture.” “He is among the best I’ve ever seen. An unbelievable player.”
Bale was known for humbling opponents, and a month later he scored in one of football’s most legendary games with a mirror-image goal to show that he could humiliate anyone.
With five minutes remaining in the Copa del Rey final between Real and arch-rival Barcelona, the score was level at 1-1 when Bale again got the ball within his own half, this time on the left.
Bale deflected a desperate attempt by Barcelona defender Marc Bartra to take him down, and despite once more being briefly forced off the pitch, he motored into the area and poked the ball past goalkeeper Jose Pinto to ignite wild celebrations.
One month later, Bale won his second trophy with Real after scoring in the Champions League final win over Atletico Madrid. The goal had given Bale his first trophy with Real.
The Welshman was in his element as Bale and his teammates travelled back to Madrid to celebrate with a trophy presentation at a sold-out Bernabeu.
He had scored 22 goals at the end of his first season and would add 18 more in his second, but there was trouble ahead.
Jeered in Madrid, loved in Wales
During his nine years at Real Madrid, Bale won five Champions League championships, three La Liga crowns, numerous other national and international trophies, and more.
The second half of that time, however, saw a deterioration in his relationship with the team as injuries hampered his performance and harsh criticism from Real’s supporters and the Spanish media.
Bale could still produce flashes of brilliance at crucial times despite being pushed to the sidelines, as evidenced by the incredible overhead kick he scored after replacing Liverpool in the Champions League final of 2018.
Still, it was obvious that he was dissatisfied. Bale revealed in a post-match interview on the field that he was already thinking about his future outside of Madrid.
It would be another four years before Bale would finally depart Real, and even while he continued to play at the Bernabeu in spite of the boos from his own supporters, his opportunities to represent Wales at home served as a calming counterbalance to the vitriol he encountered in Spain.
Bale had already cemented his status as a Welsh star at this point, but this specific time period connected him even closer to his own land and its followers.
Wales fans already admired Bale for everything he had accomplished, especially his crucial contribution to the team’s qualification for Euro 2016, which was their first major tournament in 58 years, and the motivational displays he gave during their historic run to the French semifinals.
But it was obvious that Bale needed Wales as much as this footballing nation needed its talisman when he was put in such a difficult situation in Madrid.
Welsh supporters kept up with what was happening in Spain and grew more protective of a player they idolised who they believed was being treated unfairly at his club.
Bale acknowledged that love and did not hesitate to declare his genuine allegiances.
After facing the most recent round of criticism from Spanish media on the eve of a Euro 2020 qualifier in Azerbaijan in November 2019, he declared: “I definitely have a bit more excitement playing for Wales.”
Predrag Mijatovic, a former striker for Real and current director of football, was displeased by this and asserted that Bale put Wales and even his passion in golf ahead of his club team.
One Wales supporter was inspired by that to make a flag, which he waved at a match against Hungary a few days later and read: “Golf, Wales, and Madrid and in that order.” Bale and his teammates were photographed raising the banner after Wales defeated Hungary to clinch qualifying for Euro 2020.
That effectively signalled the end of Bale’s time with Real Madrid. Not that it mattered to the guy, whose devotion to his nation was undeniable, and it only served to further his mythology among Wales supporters.
The encounter marked the beginning of a new phase in Bale’s growth as a person: the unapologetic national leader.
The moments man who still writes his own scripts
As Bale entered the autumn of his career – and the final throes of his time with Real Madrid – he found himself in the unusual position of playing more regularly for his country than his club.
Last season, he made 10 appearances for Wales and only seven for Real. This disparity meant that before Wales’ World Cup play-off semi-final against Austria in March this year, Bale had played just two hours of football in six months for Real.
With Wales two wins away from qualifying for a first World Cup since 1958, there were concerns that their captain was undercooked.
Then Bale reminded everyone that he writes his own scripts.
There were some familiar motifs to this latest Bale screenplay: more criticism from Spain (described as a “parasite” this time for prioritising Wales over Real), a high-stakes situation and the logic-defying ability to summon moments of staggering brilliance when they are needed most.
The first goal was plucked right from the greatest hits – a sumptuous 25-yard free-kick lashed into the top corner – and the second was from closer range but of similar majesty, hit on the run and with equal precision.
This is the latest iteration of Bale. The pace has faded, as has Bale’s ability – and appetite – to run at defenders.
But now at the age of 33, Bale still has an arsenal of weapons which compensate for the gradual decline of his previous physical superpowers.
His technique remains exemplary, as does his aerial ability and eye for a spectacular long-range strike, while his greater nous and experience means he is now more selective with his movements.
With all this intact, Bale still has an aura. His mere presence continues to unsettle opponents.
It perhaps explains why Ukraine captain Andriy Yarmolenko threw himself towards Bale’s free-kick and diverted it into his own net to hand Wales the only goal in their World Cup play-off final in June.
Bale admitted after the game that he was some way off his best but, in that moment, once more he was able to decide the result by sheer force of personality.
Later that month, after a long and drawn out exit from Real Madrid, he joined Los Angeles FC and, while injuries continue to limit his playing time, Bale is happy to be at a club where he feels valued and wanted.
Wales, meanwhile, are thankful for this generational talent they still have.
Bale said at the beginning of this campaign that playing at a World Cup was his greatest remaining ambition. Now he is just days away from realising that dream.
The captain has hinted he could continue playing international football at Euro 2024 and beyond, so the World Cup may not be his final act – but it feels like the missing piece.
Bale is no longer the electrifying Tottenham winger who tormented defences in the Premier League and across Europe, nor is he the all-action Galactico who scored some of Real Madrid’s most iconic goals of the past decade – but he remains a phenomenon who can still bend the course of a match to his will.
Wales do not mourn who Bale no longer is, they celebrate all that he has done, and cherish the player he is today.