LONDON, (Reuters) – The start of the transformation of Gareth Bale from a gangly teenager who did not play on the winning side in his first 24 Premier League matches for Tottenham Hotspur to the world’s most expensive player can be pin-pointed to an exact place and time.
On Oct. 20, 2010, Spurs were losing 4-0 at halftime to European champions Inter Milan in a Champions League group stage match at the San Siro before Bale hauled them back into contention with a truly remarkable second-half hat-trick.
The first two goals were almost identical, scored with searing angled left-foot drives after powerful runs that left the Inter defence and especially Brazilian defender Maicon trailing in his wake.
The third was a hard low shot from a more central position that also left Inter goalkeeper Julio Cesar nowhere and although Spurs lost the game, Bale’s stunning performance brought him to the attention of every major club in Europe.
More goals, more running and 100 million euros ($131.86 million) later, the richest of the lot, Real Madrid, has bought him.
Spurs recovered from that defeat to top their group and went on to reach the quarter-finals of their only Champions League campaign to date, and the fact the north London club have, albeit narrowly, missed out on a return to the competition in the two seasons since is one of the reasons Bale has left them.
Regarded by many as the third best player in the world after Barcelona’s Lionel Messi and his new Real Madrid team mate Cristiano Ronaldo, Bale, who was voted Footballer of the Year by journalists and Player of the Year by his peers last season, needs to be playing at the highest level.
He showed plenty of potential as a youngster, making his debut for Southampton aged 16 years and 275 days in April 2006 and becoming the youngest player to represent Wales a month later.
He caught the eye of Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger and Manchester United’s Alex Ferguson but ended up signing for Spurs for an initial 5 million pounds ($7.73 million) in May 2007.
It took him 24 league games over the next two years to be on the winning side – the jinx ending when then-manager Harry Redknapp brought him on for the last five minutes of a game against Burnley in September 2009 with Spurs already 5-0 ahead.
Tottenham finished fourth at the end of that season and qualified for the Champions League but the fact they have since failed to reach the elite competition since is at the heart of his departure from north London.
They missed out by one point last season and were denied a place the previous year, despite finishing fourth, when Chelsea lifted the European Cup.
Bale, whose partner gave birth to a baby girl last year, always gave the impression he was happy at Spurs and ready to lead their next assault on the Champions League in the coming campaign.
Clearly though, the amount offered by Real and the challenge for the Welshman to raise his game to even further heights in Spain, as well as a significant improvement in his earnings, proved irresistible.
Real’s world record outlay has seen them sign a player with boundless stamina, tremendous pace, ball control and the ability to find the net from distance with some spectacular goals. Whether they need him to join up with Luka Modric, whom they signed from Spurs a year ago, or not is another matter.
Coach Carlo Ancelotti already has Ronaldo, Mesut Ozil, Karim Benzema and Angel Di Maria in attack as well as Isco, who arrived in Madrid this summer from Malaga.
Ancelotti could well experiment with Ronaldo as a central striker, leaving Bale to play in any number of forward roles.
It was also at Tottenham where the transformation from a left back to midfielder to forward took place.
Bale always looked dangerous on the left side of the middle four, but he went up a further gear when he began to play regularly in a more central role last season.
He scored some outstanding goals from that position, including a last-minute winner in a 3-2 victory at West Ham United in February and a fabulous equaliser after a typical driving run to secure a 1-1 draw at Norwich City a few weeks before that.
His very last act at White Hart Lane was to score the winning goal from outside the penalty area against Sunderland in the last minute of the last game of the season which gave Spurs a 1-0 win.
That though was just not enough to bring Champions League football back to White Hart Lane because Arsenal’s 1-0 win at Newcastle United on the same day meant they finished fourth, a point and a place ahead of Tottenham.
His sale means Spurs now have a significant amount in their coffers, and with plans in place for a new 56,000-seater stadium next to White Hart Lane, the club remain optimistic about playing at the highest level again, even without their star name.
Bale could yet play in the competition at Spurs again – however, his name will be on the back of the white shirt of Real Madrid rather than that of Tottenham Hotspur.
($1 = 0.7584 euros)