If 2013 was something of an annus horibilis for Gareth Bale, then 2016 has undisputedly been his annus mirabilis.
Despite that record-breaking transfer to Real Madrid from Tottenham Hotspur three years ago, Bale initially struggled – understandably – to cope with the seismic shift in environment, culture, and above all else, expectation. Many saw him as the yin to Cristiano Ronaldo’s yang, yet the Welshman flattered to deceive in those early days in Spain.
Since then, however, Bale has looked every inch a Real Madrid player, with an explosive rate of progression that has seen him become a permanent fixture in discussions over the identity of the world’s best players. No longer is Bale trailing in the wake of Ronaldo; he is standing, broad shoulder to broad shoulder, alongside the man who has embellished Madrid with his superstardom since his own record-breaking move seven years ago.
But we will all look back on Bale’s 2016 with Wales as his magnum opus. Not only did the 27-year-old drive his team on to qualify for their first major tournament in over half a century, but Bale was instrumental in the Dragons’ unlikely surge to the semi-finals of last summer’s European Championships.
Great players can often wilt on an international stage, yet Wales – in Bale’s favour – arrived without pressure, and chiefly – here’s that key word once more - expectation. They could play without fear, without trepidation, and a Gareth Bale without the handbrake on is a dangerous Gareth Bale indeed.
His fizzing free-kick set them on their way to a 2-1 over Slovakia in their Group B opener, before a similar dead-ball strike against England incurred an uncharacteristically spirited comeback from the Three Lions late on. Yet Wales responded by trouncing Russia in their final group game, with Bale capping off proceedings with a well-taken third goal, which ensured they ran out as group winners.
Still teams came at them, and still they were felled. While their rivals from over the border were dumped out by Iceland, Wales edged past a dogged Northern Ireland – Bale’s cross forced Gareth McAuley to put through his own net – before Belgium beckoned in the quarter-finals.
Once more, Wales’ man for all seasons was superb, exhibiting the vocal presence of a seasoned army general, the blistering pace of an Olympic sprinter and the resilience of a stoic boxing champion. If some play with a dagger between their teeth, Bale played with a sword between his, inspiring his country to the last four of a tournament for the first time in their history.
Wales were eventually knocked out by Portugal, which saw the Great Pretender to the throne face the Great Defender of it. Ronaldo edged out his club colleague, yet it was Bale who had gleaned the most admiration for helping haul that band of brothers so far in the tournament.
To unjustly label Wales a one-man team would be insulting to the rest of the squad, yet it would be equally remiss to ignore the impact of the jewel in their crown. Before his excursion to France, Bale was a giant of European football: he returned with 22 others.
Bookending Bale’s heroics at the Euros this calendar year have been two periods which have seen Bale scale new heights. Let us not forget that beyond the romanticism of Madrid’s Champions League win and Wales’ Euros campaign, Bale’s contribution has been impossible to ignore.
First, there is his speed. It is a vital facet of Bale’s game, giving him that extra split-second or extra yard of space, to decide on an end product. That quickness has been evident since his formation as a flying winger at White Hart Lane – including those two famous nights against Inter Milan and their former right-back, Maicon, who would have had enjoyed better luck had he attempted to plait fog than stop Bale in across those two games.
There is also a cutting intelligence to Bale’s game; his mind works as sharp as his legs when on the ball. Those instantaneous decisions and flickers of brilliance are destructive traits Barcelona’s ex-defender Marc Bartra could attest to after the 2014 Copa Del Rey final, in which Bale arced his run off the pitch to evade the Spaniard’s challenge.
But Bale’s true dynamism extends from that gilded left foot, and is the tool which gives him the confidence to flourish. His ‘weaker’ right foot is also probably better than most players’ stronger foot – his P.E teacher at school forbade him from using his left leg during football practice – and La Liga defenders probably wish the Royal Spanish Football Federation could enforce similar rules.
Many players have tried and failed to stop that lethal combination of pace, intellect and naked ability on many occasions, and more will follow. But perhaps the most excitably scary thing about Bale is that he is merely verging on his peak years. At 27, there is still conceivable scope for another three or four years of dominance for both club and country.
A viable contender for Sports Personality of the Year
But presently, in the here and now, there is certainly no better British football star. Is there even a case to claim Bale is currently the finest British sports star? Perhaps. A bona fide athlete who is extremely humble, and has devoted years to personal improvement, building on those strengths and developing his weaknesses.
A scrupulously-clean media image still safely intact, Bale has led a quiet life, mainly due to the insatiable appetite he nurtures in his quest for perfection. In such opulent surroundings alongside fellow Galacticos, resting on your laurels is the cardinal sin. A mere sign of lethargy, of disinterest, and things can quickly go downhill.
Bale has been in the public consciousness for over 10 years since making his senior debut for Southampton in 2006, and there has been a tangible progression in his career ever since. From a slender, shy 16-year-old left-back to a 27-year-old hulking, all-out attacking machine, everyone in football has enjoyed a decade of Bale’s greatest hits. Here’s to his best one yet.