“How many dogs have pissed on that?” Gareth Bale asks to no one in particular. He is leaning against a telegraph pole on a quiet backstreet in Kentish Town, London, blue-steeling for the final shots of the Esquire photo session. He fills out a tailored, double-breasted Burberry Prorsum suit, Gucci polo shirt and Louis Vuitton shoes with azure trim that appear to shimmer when he walks. He looks the business: a little Mod, a bit Sixties gangster; an effect that is heightened by his severe cheekbones and the directional side-parting he has unexpectedly carried off since the start of the year.
I had been wondering just how famous Bale is and the answer soon becomes apparent. An ice cream van twinkles round the corner and theatrically stalls when the driver sees that it is him. A thick-set jogger trots by and bellows “Yiddo!” — the traditional rallying cry (and the highest term of endearment) of the Spurs faithful. A handful of pre-teen kids appear from a nearby estate and discuss what they are going to say and do to him, before one declares definitively, “I’m gonna nutmeg Bale!” They snigger and shove each other around.
The boys have an opportunity sooner than they might imagine as Esquire’s photographer Benni wants to take some pictures on an asphalt five-a-side football pitch that belongs to a local primary school. There are basic metal goalposts, no nets and graffiti on a brick wall that reads “Fuck School”. A ball is produced and Benni suggests a game of Bale versus the rest. It should be a familiar-enough dynamic for the 23-year-old winger who was often described last season, only half-jokingly, as a one-man team. But now the kids actually have a chance to show Bale their skills, they clam up, becoming all shy and reticent. “Tackle him!” shouts Benni, as Bale stands on the ball with his left foot, hopping around on his right, keeping it tantalisingly out of reach.
Eventually one of the boys grows impatient and swings a scything tackle. Bale dodges it somehow, but it is close enough for his agent to scream, “Watch his ankles!” (This impromptu kick-about is taking place in mid-April, while Spurs are fighting to secure a top-four finish in the Premier League — and a precious spot in the Champions League for this season — and every major football club in Europe is praying that they will fail, so Bale becomes available for transfer.) The agent’s voice has a pitch and intensity that you too might summon if you were responsible for a £50m commodity that was suddenly placed in needless jeopardy.
Game over, shoot wrapped, we walk back to the photographic studio. The crowd has grown and Bale spends a few minutes signing whatever’s put in front of him. Three young-ish women with hair an identical shade of platinum elbow their way to the front and demand a photograph on their mobile phones. Bale obliges, and as he disappears, one of them snickers, “Nice one, Gareth. See you in that bar again next week, all right?”
At the studio, we begin to chat, half-swallowed by a deep leather sofa. A period of time has been agreed between Esquire wranglers and Bale’s agent for the interview, something that comes as unwelcome news to Bale. He looks at me, almost pleadingly, “Really, we’re going to talk for an hour and a half?” Bale can do a lot in 90 minutes; say, score a hat trick against Inter Milan. He shakes his head and mutters without any real annoyance, “But Real Madrid-Dortmund kicks off in half an hour.”
There is, though, a fair amount to discuss. Item one: when and how did Gareth Bale suddenly become so good? Like, third-best-footballer-on-the-planet-after-Leo-Messi-and-Cristiano-Ronaldo good. Bale has not come from nowhere exactly, but it was not so long ago that he was playing left back and being kept out of the Tottenham Hotspur starting eleven by Benoît Assou-Ekotto. So that’s one thing. And item two: when and how did Gareth Bale suddenly become the guy that would feature on a cover of Esquire? He had always seemed gangly and angular, maybe even a bit too Welsh (ie not English), but now he had the style and look and billboard buffness of a new generation’s David Beckham. Seriously, how does that happen?
Bale, who admits that Beckham is the closest he has to a fashion inspiration (“He always looks good in whatever he wears”), has now changed into his own clothes: a Superdry check shirt, white vest, jeans and pristine Gucci white trainers. He wears a pink baseball cap, back to front, and a matching fluorescent G-Shock encrusted with Swarovski crystals. He looks good, though you suspect that Beckham might swap the £150 watch for a £150,000 Jacob & Co studded with real diamonds. But then Bale has never been the most ostentatious of characters: in 2010, the then-Spurs manager Harry Redknapp instructed him to take a few days off and find a beach somewhere nice; Bale decided instead to spend the time at home with his mum and dad in Cardiff.
You have an advantage reading this profile that I did not have while writing it: you probably know whose colours Bale will be wearing for the 2013/14 season. When this magazine went to press, Spurs had just finished fifth in the Premier League. As the season progressed, and Bale single-footedly dismantled every defence he played against, there was tacit acceptance that he would leave Spurs if they did not qualify for the Champions League. Even if they did squeeze in, there was a fair possibility that the club would not be able to resist an eye-watering offer for a player they had bought for an eventual fee of £7m from Southampton in 2007.
It’s a complicated situation that could make our conversation today a touch tricky, a bit hypothetical. So I ask him about the match that was played the night before we meet, Bayern Munich’s merciless four-nil demolition of Barcelona in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final. Newspapers were already calling it the end of an era, a sign that the Spanish dominance of European football was over — is that how he sees it?
“I probably wouldn’t agree with that, no,” he says, his voice inflected with a sing-song Welsh lilt. “They are all good enough players to sort out one bad performance. Every team is allowed a bad spell and I’m sure they will come out of it.”
Bale has long maintained that he would like to play abroad one day — does he feel that his style of football is particularly suited to La Liga, Serie A, the Bundesliga? He glances warily at his agent, who nods his assent for Bale to continue. “I probably prefer Spanish football to the others,” he says. “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. So I’d say that Spanish football is probably the best I’ve seen.
“Obviously I’d like to try other leagues in the future,” he goes on. “Every player would like to get as high as they can and try different things. It’s something that the future holds and it’s something that I’m very interested to try in the least.”
The tug of Champions League football is irresistible for Bale, and it is not hard to see why. It was in that competition on 20 October 2010, aged 21, that he introduced himself as Europe’s most breath-quickening young player. Spurs were playing the reigning champions Inter Milan at the San Siro. They went one-nil down, then two from the penalty spot, when their hapless keeper Heurelho Gomes was sent off after just eight minutes. It was four-nil before half-time, and Bale genuinely feared it could be eight by the final whistle. But early in the second half, he ran half the length of the field and smashed in a consolation goal. As the clock ran down, he scored another, almost identical, mesmerising the Inter defenders with his magnetic control and deft, barely perceptible shoulder dips. Into stoppage time, a technically superb third. At full-time, Inter Milan 4, Gareth Bale 3. “Amazing, just amazing,” purred Luís Figo.
Bale describes his early experiences in Europe’s elite competition with surprising specificity, almost with the wonderment of an armchair fan. “The music is a massive thing,” he says, meaning Handel’s anthem, “Zadoc the Priest”, that announces the arrival of the teams. “When we first got into the Champions League, it’s one of the things that most of the lads were looking forward to, hearing it in the stadium. It’s little things like that which make it special.”
Beyond that, Bale speaks of a freedom he enjoyed in the Champions League that has become scarce at home since his dissection of Inter Milan. “When you play in the Premier League, say you’re playing against a lower-end team, they set up to defend all the time, they set up to block you off,” he says. “But when you play in the Champions League, all the other teams are used to winning every week, so it’s more of an open game, it’s more attacking, end to end. You haven’t always got two or three people marking you. No one’s used to defending, everyone’s used to attacking and trying to win games, so it’s just all against all.”
No one could begrudge Bale his personal ambition or for a wanderlust that is so rare among young British footballers. But if he had swapped the all white of Spurs for, for example, Los Blancos of Real Madrid, then it is a disappointment that will be felt far beyond White Hart Lane. Just as it would confirm Tottenham as a “selling club” — an organisation that nurtures young talent for more prestigious teams — so it would also offer further proof that the Premier League is becoming a “selling league”. In recent years, Ronaldo, Cesc Fàbregas and Luka Modri´ć have all left our shores in search of purer, more sophisticated football on the continent. Bale leaving would be painful for Spurs fans, but it would also tell us all some uncomfortable truths about the decline of football in this country.
More than that, it would just be plain sad. Watching Bale has become one of the rare, non-sectarian pleasures of the Premier League. Whichever team you support, it is impossible not to sit forward a little in your seat when he gathers the ball and squints his gaze upfield. He is an uncomplicated, non-subjective delight, like sunny bank holidays, fish-finger sandwiches or the early music of Michael Jackson. The only serious complaint you ever hear about Bale is with his slightly cheesy “heart” goal celebration, which 59 per cent of Sun readers said in a poll that they “hated”. So if you are reading this and Gareth Bale is still an employee of Tottenham Hotspur, then we should treasure these moments. If he has flown the nest, then no question he will be missed.
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But we are getting ahead of ourselves. The Gareth Bale Story is not a simple tale of the boyo wonder who took the world by storm. Born in Cardiff in 1989, he has been obsessed with football for as long as he could remember, never even vaguely thinking about what else he might do with his life. He was spotted by a Southampton FC scout when he was eight, playing for his local team Cardiff Civil Service FC in a five-a-side tournament in Newport, and from that moment he counted down the days until he could make football his job. “I was never too much into school, I liked lunchtimes and breaks, but nah, I hated sitting at a desk,” he says. “I was always looking out of the window, looking at my watch, thinking about when I could play football.”
A couple of nights every week, Bale visited the club’s satellite academy in Bath and then at weekends there was a five-hour round trip in the car with his dad to Southampton for matches. The Saints Academy is now regarded as the foremost hothouse for young players in Britain — the Spurs manager André Villas-Boas compared the set-up to Barcelona’s — and Bale was far from the star of the show. Theo Walcott, one year older, was understood to be the sure thing, while contemporaries Nathan Dyer and Adam Lallana, who now play in the Premier League for Swansea and Southampton respectively, were also coming through. In fact, when Bale was fifteen, he was told by Southampton that he one game — a match against Norwich — to prove that he had what it took to become a “scholar” and start training full-time with the club.
The pressure must have been excruciating, I suggest to Bale. He looks at me blankly; I am forced to believe that this might be the first time he has thought about the ultimatum — that his nascent career hung on 90 minutes of football; that he could be dumped with few school qualifications to his name — in that way. “When you’re young, you don’t really process it that well, you just go out and play football, you want to do well,” he replies. “I never really felt any pressure and luckily I played well enough for them to offer me a contract.”
If I had to pick one aspect of Bale’s personality that helps to inform his current success, it would be this: he comes across not so much as fearless but completely oblivious to situations that others might regard as paralysingly stressful. This becomes apparent a few times in our conversation. He made his debut for Tottenham Hotspur against Manchester United in August 2007, having just turned 18, in front of a rammed Old Trafford. “I didn’t feel nervous or anything,” he remembers. “I just wanted to play.”
Not long after arriving at Spurs, Bale was tackled by Fabrice Muamba and sustained serious ligament damage to his right ankle. A surgeon put a metal pin in the joint, Bale would be out for the rest of the season and there was no guarantee he would ever regain strength in that foot. But talking about this period today, he is beyond phlegmatic; it was an opportunity for him to build up the rest of his body, so that he had the physical attributes for the Premier League.
Then there is the freak statistic that Bale managed to play 24 matches for Spurs – 1,533 minutes – over two seasons before the team won a game. That is the longest run of games by any player in Premier League history without being on the winning side. It’s said that when Harry Redknapp announced his name in the team line-up, Bale’s team-mates – OK, David Bentley mainly – would actually groan. The run was only stopped when Redknapp sent him on as a substitute in the 85th minute against Burnley, when Spurs were leading four-nil. Surely that bothered him? “It was just a laugh and a joke really,” says Bale. “But against Burnley, I do remember Harry saying, ‘If it gets to four-all when you’re on, I’m taking you off.’”
It is perhaps easy to reflect on that time now that the “Curse of Gareth Bale” (The Daily Telegraph, 2009) has become the “Gareth Bale Effect” (The Guardian, 2013). In May, he became the first Tottenham player to score 20 goals in a Premier League season since Jurgen Klinsmann in 1995, but what was more revealing was how many of them were crucial, game-deciding scores. During one four-match period, he scored six goals, while his team-mates between them didn’t find the net once; by entirely unscientific reckoning, Spurs would have finished in mid-table without his contributions last season. He won every individual end-of-term prize — from fellow players, journalists, as a senior and young player — going.
The explanation for Bale’s blossoming goes back to arrival at Spurs. At that time, he was a left back with a wobbly free-kick and slightly erratic defence. Harry Redknapp complained that he would limp off “if he got a little mark on him” and at one point Bale’s stock fell so low that the manager tried to offload him to Newcastle. But over a couple of years, he moved up the field, when injuries left a hole to fill, and finally ended up on the wing, as Redknapp built his team around pacy wide players (Bale and Aaron Lennon) and skyscraper front men (Peter Crouch and Roman Pavlyuchenko). Bale was not encouraged to drift into more central areas. “Harry did try me once or twice in the middle but I don’t think he felt too comfortable about it,” he recalls.
Bale’s devastating move into the hole, moving freely behind a line-leading striker, came with the arrival of André Villas-Boas at the start of last season. In terms of management philosophies, Harry and AVB could scarcely be more different. Redknapp’s unreconstructed philosophy is perhaps best summed up by one post-match quote: “I just told him to tell Pavlyuchenko to fucking run around a bit.” There was a whiteboard in the dressing room at White Hart Lane but Bale only ever saw Redknapp write the team line-up on it. Soon after he arrived at the club, the new playmaker Rafael van der Vaart commented, “It feels like I’m back on the street. There are no long and boring speeches about tactics like I was used to at Real Madrid.”
AVB, meanwhile, is the embodiment of the modern football manager. He prepares elaborate dossiers about Tottenham’s opponents and the team spends all week before a fixture devising strategies and formations. Pre-season, Villas-Boas decided that Bale might pose a more menacing threat if he was allowed to leave the sideline and roam wherever he desired. It was almost as simple as that. “When André came in, we spoke about how to bring that dimension into my game so that people couldn’t double-mark me because I would be floating around,” Bale says. “People can’t follow you, which gives you more room to do damage on the pitch.”
Damage is exactly the word. Bale has become terrifying for opponents. Last season, defences tried everything to stop him: they double- then triple-marked him, they forced him onto his weaker right foot, they kicked him, but nothing worked. He was too fast and unpredictable, his finishing lethal. His strikes against Norwich, West Ham and Southampton were all among the season’s finest. Every week, it seemed impossible that he could sustain the brilliance and then he would pull off something even more outrageous. Zinedine Zidane mentioned him in the same breath as Messi and Ronaldo. “He’s perhaps not quite at the level of the other two, but he’s different,” he said. “So personally I don’t think he’s far off.”
I suspect I know the answer already, but I ask Bale how it felt to walk on the pitch last season: did he feel simply invincible? Or sometimes was he intimidated by the standards he set himself? “I don’t feel any pressure,” he says. “If I’m the one scoring all the goals and winning us the games, then I just carry on as normal. I don’t feel any different.”
A Nando’s — his take-out of choice; though McDonald’s and Burger King both have their moments — has arrived for Bale to snack on, but it sits untouched on the table. Bale is talking about inspirations and the one person who has had the greatest influence on his career, his father. Frank Bale was a school caretaker and then a painter and decorator. His first love is rugby, but it was clear early on that Gareth was not cut out for that sport: “It’s too rough,” he says. “I don’t want to tackle anyone.” Football was more promising and Gareth and Frank — “a tough-tackling centre back” in his day, Bale says — would go to the local park almost every night for a kick-around.
Frank’s skills did not make much impact on his son, but his uncompromising discipline did. “I remember when I was under-10s, I’d be crying in the back of the car if I had a bad game,” Bale says. “Partly because of the bad game and then he used to shout at me and I used to cry. He always told me off if I did something wrong. Even now he still does it. But he makes me get better and I kind of want to keep proving him wrong to keep him quiet. He’s always got something to say.”
Bale does not want to leave out his mother, Debbie — “My dad’s bad cop, my mum’s usually good cop, so it works well.” His parents now come to every home game and he speaks to them on the phone at least once a day. But, even when he’s not there, you suspect that Gareth can’t escape Frank’s voice in his ears. He doesn’t drink — though that is partly because he dislikes the taste — has never smoked a cigarette and would not dream of ever having a tattoo. Recently, for a gag, Bale put a couple of magnetic earrings in and sat at the family’s kitchen table in Cardiff. “My dad walked in and I swear I thought he was going to kill me,” says Bale. “He looked at me with such disgust. I thought, ‘Oh my God!’ My mate was in and he felt proper awkward.
“He’s just old-school, he’s a proper man, as they say. He doesn’t believe in jewellery and stuff and he brought me up like that.”
The one acceptable concession to vanity for Bale is his hair. When Harry Redknapp arrived at Spurs in 2008, the team were bottom of the table and he went round the dressing room critiquing the players. When he reached Bale, he looked at his meticulously gelled hair and said: “Bale. Stop fucking about with your barnet.” Redknapp would have given him the hairdryer, the joke went, but Bale would have just used it to tease his quiff into meringue peaks. He was humiliated, even though he wasn’t the only player that the new manager picked on. “This was when he first came and he didn’t like me,” remembers Bale. “But we needed a kick up the arse and it worked, I must say.”
When Bale unveiled his new side-parting last January, he was so wary of what his team-mates would say that he brought in a bobble hat to training. “I was waiting for the abuse to come and it came, in abundance,” he says. “It’s always good when it’s someone else, but when it’s you it’s horrible.” There’s a wall of shame at the Spurs training complex, where any vaguely embarrassing pictures are tacked up (Bale is already fully resigned to the spreads of this magazine ending up there). These days, Bale’s hair is in the hands of a hairdresser who makes home visits to a few of the Spurs players. Bale sees him every couple of weeks and he is in particular demand before the big matches. “If you’re on TV, you always have a nice, fresh trim,” he says.
Almost as impressive as Bale’s performances on the pitch is his unstarry level-headedness off it. This, it would appear, is Bale’s life: golf (his handicap is 11), FIFA on the PS3 and a slightly above-average number of haircuts. His partner, since his school days, is Emma Rhys-Jones and last October they had their first child, Alba Violet Bale — the initials AVB, we are assured, is purely a coincidence. Rhys-Jones and Alba mostly live in Cardiff, while Bale stays in Essex and bombs down the M4 when he can. “Whenever I get days off, I go home, or friends and family come up,” he explains. “I’m in contact with them every day, so it’s like we live next door, but obviously we live in two different countries. Football is my job and everyone around me has given me the opportunity to purely concentrate on football and everyone else worries about everything else.”
What is there for Bale to work on? His right foot, he accepts, needs attention and there’s always tinkering to be done to his free-kick technique. But actually he’s convinced he can improve just about every aspect of his game. “I know there’s a lot more to come,” he says, without a hint of boastfulness.
We don’t quite make it to 90 minutes, but Bale does well, more than an hour, never checking his phone once. Now we are finished, we find that Real Madrid are on their way to being destroyed 4-1 by Borussia Dortmund in Germany. Another line in the obituary of Spanish football. If the Bernabeu is Bale’s destination this season, then he doesn’t show a flicker of emotion at the scoreline.
Just past 9pm, he leaves, accompanied by his minders, clutching a brown Nando’s paper bag in one hand and a Louis Vuitton rucksack in the other. But outside the photographic studio an unforeseen gathering has taken place. The kids from the kick-about earlier have told their mates, who have told their mates, and now there is a crowd of around 80 who have waited for nearly two hours to catch a glimpse of Bale. As the staff at the studio smuggle him to their car park across the street, I go outside to survey the scene. It’s kind of insane actually: a police minibus pulls up and five officers jump out to supervise the mob. It becomes clear that people have actually driven here to witness the spectacle. I imagine they mostly want autographs and pictures, but this is Arsenal territory — the Emirates is certainly the closest stadium — so Bale is perhaps wise not to hang around too long.
After five minutes, a white Range Rover with blacked-out windows whizzes up a ramp and bisects the crowd. About half of them run the opposite direction up the street, calculating that they can head off Bale in the one-way system. The rest stay where they are, some suggesting that the vehicle might even be a decoy. I overhear one man saying, “I reckon we stay with the police.”
In the end, it is a familiar story: no one catches Bale, he’s simply too fast for everyone. Eventually the scene dissolves. I walk behind a pair of teenagers as they make their way home. “Ah, Bale fucked off. Poor,” one says. “That’s why I hate Tottenham.”
His friend agrees, “That makes me hate Tottenham even more.”