After a HK$1b transfer, Gareth Bale must now show he is the Real deal
He is good, but is he that good? The fortune paid by the Madrid side for the Welsh winger is more about showmanship than sportsmanship
Real Madrid paying gazillions for Gareth Bale is the football equivalent of a fat cat using flaming banknotes to light up his cigars. In the middle of biting economic crisis in Spain, it looks wasteful and nonsensical.
If stacked in a pile of €50 notes, the fee that Real are paying to north London club Tottenham for the winger would stretch far higher than the second floor of the Eiffel Tower.
Exactly how much higher wasn't immediately clear, because the clubs, officially at least, did not disclose the financial details. The word in London was that Bale sold for €100 million (HK$1 billion), which would be a world record for football.
Reports from Spain spoke of €91 million, hardly a snip. It was in Real's interests to leak that lower figure to reporters. It means that Cristiano Ronaldo, Real's preening superstar, can continue to claim the mantle of being the world's most expensive footballer. Real paid £80 million (then €93 million) to Manchester United for him in 2009.
Either way, €90 million or €100 million for Bale is plain silly. He is simply not worth that much money. At least, not yet.
A fortune like that for Lionel Messi, four-time world player of the year, would be easier to understand. He has scored more competitive goals than anyone for Barcelona and won everything there is to win with that club.
Still only 26, just two years older than Bale, Messi is already up there with Pele and Diego Maradona as one of the best footballers ever. He could also lead Argentina to glory at the World Cup in Brazil next year, which Bale will never do with football minnow Wales.
With 202 goals in 202 games for Real, an astounding ratio of success, Ronaldo has also repeatedly proved his value for the nine-time European champions. He was already a proven winner when he moved to Madrid, at the same age Bale is now, having scooped up trophies galore in six seasons under Alex Ferguson in Manchester, including the 2008 European Cup.
Bale's abundance of speed and talent have been clear to all since he humbled European club defender of the year Maicon and his Inter Milan teammate Lucio in the Champions League in 2010, burning past both Brazil internationals with his pace, making them look slow.
As he accumulated goals, match-winning performances and individual player of the year awards at Tottenham, it became clear that Bale was outgrowing the club and would likely need to move elsewhere to win team trophies. Tottenham have not been able to offer Bale another taste of Champions League football since that 2010-2011 season when they lost to Real in the quarter-finals, spanked 5-0 over two legs.
Still, as good as he is undoubtedly is, Bale is not world-record good or close to it.
Sooner or later, it was inevitable that a club would one day pay €100 million for a footballer. That milestone has symbolic importance only, because prices always go up, football is never short of people with more money than sense and because the very best players really can make a big difference to clubs' sporting and financial success.
But few people would have put Bale in that 100-million category before this summer. He is no Messi. He cannot match the Argentine for technique. At Real, Bale will be second fiddle to Ronaldo, four years his senior. Both are blindingly quick, which should make opponents quake if they combine well together. But the Portuguese forward is better in the air and less predictable than Bale and a far more polished, rounded football product than the Welsh winger.
In short, this looks less like Real investing wisely or paying real market value and far more like club president Florentino Perez making another giant splash, just as with other "Galaticos" - blockbuster stars - he previously recruited. Barcelona beat Real in a bidding war for Neymar, signing the Brazil star this June in a deal worth €57 million. Real now spending so lavishly on Bale sends the message: "Anything you can do, we can do bigger."
Had Real bought three players for a total of €100 million, there would have been less fuss. Spending that amount or close to it on Bale alone, in a country locked in economic recession for most of the past four years and with a stubbornly high unemployment rate above 26 per cent, shocked some critics.
"Given the situation of the Spanish economy right now it's a slap in the face to society," said University of Barcelona finance professor Jose Maria Gay. "The banks aren't lending, and I imagine that Real Madrid will have to finance the operation at least partially with a bank loan. It appears very wrong to me. It's an act of arrogance when normal people are having a hard time."
The thousands of fans who thronged to Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu stadium for Bale's official presentation on Monday looked happy enough, cheering and applauding the new recruit who showed off his skills, doing keepy-uppy in his fresh white team jersey.
But the trick for Bale will be keeping them happy. From now on, Bale will be measured week-in, week-out against Messi, Ronaldo and his own massive price tag. Those are awfully high expectations. There is no guarantee that Bale can fulfil them.