Gareth Bale completes journey from Spurs misfit to Madrid superstar
Once an injury-prone novice, the 24-year-old has had a bumpy ride from south Wales to Madrid where he will have to get used to celebrity status
It was only four years ago that Gareth Bale was being labelled a jinx and a flop, and faced being offloaded on the cheap by Tottenham. Now he is the most expensive player in the history of football, with a price tag of €100 million (HK$1 billion) hanging heavy on his shoulders.
It's been a bumpy journey at times from south Wales to the Spanish capital. But the 24-year-old Bale will now have to get used to having the superstar status afforded Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, which may be alien to a down-to-earth Welshman whose long-time partner is a childhood sweetheart from their native Cardiff.
For the past three years, Bale has been wowing global audiences with his long-range strikes, swerving free kicks, defence-splitting surges and mesmerising footwork for Tottenham.
But it wasn't always that way. In May 2007, Tottenham paid £5 million (HK$60 million) to bring a spindly 17-year-old from Southampton, a club then playing in England's second tier who had signed Bale to their academy two years earlier. At that stage, he was a novice left back and prone to injury, but at the same time Wales' youngest-ever international and a player of promise.
His electric pace was already well-known, for he was runner-up over 50 metres at the national under-11s championship in Wales. In fact, he was a strong all-round sportsman, excelling at football and athletics in particular during his school days in a suburb of the Welsh capital and striking up a friendship with current Wales rugby captain Sam Warburton that lasts to this day.
He came from a modest background - his father, Frank, was a school caretaker - but he had quickly reached the big time with his move to Spurs.
Yet his career threatened to stall completely at White Hart Lane. Although he scored three times in his first four starts, the disillusioned, alice-band-wearing teenager endured more than 1,500 minutes on the pitch across 28 months before finally featuring on a winning side in the Premier League for Spurs. A series of injuries was stunting his progress and he became a symbol of poor results until emerging as a substitute 84 minutes into his 25th Premier League game - a 5-0 rout of Burnley.
The then-Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp has acknowledged almost giving up on Bale, who was seen as a potential make-weight in deals to bring in new players. Within a couple of years, Spurs couldn't act quicker to keep hold of their rising star.
After shaking off his substitute's role by the start of 2010, Bale began to consistently show the flair and devastating speed that displaced left back Benoit Assou-Ekotto from the starting line-up. And as the attacking side of Bale's game began to flourish, Redknapp pushed Bale onto the left wing. It proved to be an inspired move.
Having helped steer Tottenham into the Champions League for the first time in May that year, Bale was rewarded with a lucrative new deal - the first of three successive annual contract upgrades - and announced himself to the world with two dazzling displays against Champions League holders Inter Milan in the group stage in the 2010-11 season.
It included a hat-trick at the San Siro and then another virtuoso performance in the return at White Hart Lane, where he gave Brazil right back Maicon one of the toughest nights of his life.
A star was born.
As Tottenham fought off interest from rival teams, Bale was named the 2011 player of the year in England by his footballing peers. He soon began to outgrow Tottenham, with the team failing to return to the Champions League despite his goal-scoring prowess and searing pace.
His importance to the London club was underscored last season by the fact his 21 league goals helped win 22 points for Spurs, although they still finished a place outside the top four.
Bale is still not the complete footballer. His right foot could be stronger and he doesn't have the presence in the air that Ronaldo - his idol - has. He also has a penchant for diving, something that has earned him a string of yellow cards in the past two seasons and blotted his reputation somewhat.
But his improvement since 2010 has been nothing short of phenomenal.
With Wales unlikely to qualify for a major international tournament anytime soon, it's at club level where Bale will have to make his mark, just like Ian Rush, Mark Hughes and Ryan Giggs did before him.
And he is doing just that. He promotes computer games, was on the front cover of Esquire and has even filed an application to trademark his goal celebration - a heart-shaped hand gesture he dedicates to his girlfriend - to use on merchandise. More of the same will surely come his way during his time at Madrid.
1893: Willie Groves, West Brom to Aston Villa, £100
1905: Alf Common, Sunderland to Middlesbrough, £1,000
1928: David Jack, Bolton to Arsenal, £10,890
1961: Luis Suarez, Barcelona to Inter Milan, £152,000
1975: Giuseppe Savoldi, Bologna Napoli, £1.2m
1992: Jean-Pierre Papin, Marseille to AC Milan, £10m
1999: Christian Vieri, Lazio to Inter Milan, £32.0m
2001: Zinedine Zidane, Juventus to Real Madrid, £53m
2009: Cristiano Ronaldo, Man Utd to Real Madrid £80m
2013: Gareth Bale, Tottenham to Real Madrid, £85.3m