Newsmaker: Gareth Bale
Four years ago, Gareth Bale had lost his place at left-back in the Tottenham Hotspur first team to Benoît Assou-Ekotto. There were murmurings that the Welshman was struggling to live up to the promise of his move to London two years earlier and was set to be offloaded to Birmingham City.
Wind the clock on four seasons, and the son of a former school caretaker is on the verge of becoming the world's most expensive footballer, with a price tag ranging from £86 million (Dh491m) to £125m, depending on how fanciful the figures are at your disposal. It's a modern-day Cinderella tale of epic proportions.
But as truly remarkable as this proposed switch to Real Madrid is, it's a hard one for the wider Spanish public to swallow. It's said to be made possible by substantial loans from Spanish banks in a country that's still in the throes of a major economic crisis, a nation where a quarter of the adult population is unemployed.
It means that Bale needs to live up to the price tag - roughly in line with the £100m valuation of the entire Tottenham Hotspur club when it was delisted from the Aim Index stock exchange in 2012 - and do so fast. But can one mere mortal ever truly live up to a price tag of £86m? Probably not, although Real supporters seem to have forgiven and forgotten the £80m that was shelled out for Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009, given how he has bedevilled opposition defences both domestically and on the global stage.
The Bale-Ronaldo comparison is an interesting one. They share a similar value in the crazy modern-day football market, but also a similar physique. Both were tall and slightly gangly in their youth, but have worked tremendously on their bodies to achieve builds that are ominous and imposing for the defenders employed to try to silence them. Both are free-kick specialists, although, tellingly, Bale was twice as effective as Ronaldo from dead-ball situations last season.
Unlike Ronaldo, though, Bale has not really appeared on the biggest stage, so question marks remain. Sure, he was voted the best player by all and sundry last season in the English Premier League, the highest league in the world, off the back of 21 league goals, but there have been no European Championship or World Cup appearances (Wales have failed to qualify for a major tournament since 1976), and fewer big nights in Europe.
So there will be those waiting with a heavy dose of cynicism over his seemingly imminent arrival. Bale knows that he will have to adapt quickly to a new league and a new life. Real's supporters are a notoriously unforgiving bunch. Big names have come there, faltered and been castigated. But those that have made their mark immediately are taken to the supporters' hearts instantly. I Bale will desperately crave the latter.
But how exactly will he slot into Real's system? Tottenham moved him from left-back to left-wing, before finally giving him greater freedom to roam the pitch. Ronaldo already has that mantle at the Bernabéu. Is there room for two? Only time will tell. Whatever the machinations, the world's footballing audiences will be watching with bated breath. Bale, though, has faced criticism before. At the start of the 2009-10 season, he had played 24 games for the Spurs without a win. Looking back, he recalls how his teammates would joke that a win was off the cards if his name made it onto the teamsheet. Jokes aside, the player that Spurs had paid £10m for in 2007 was running the then manager Harry Redknapp's patience thin.
Redknapp felt that the player was more concerned with his hairstyle than his footballing prowess, and when an injury put him on the sidelines, he could not get his place back in the team. So Redknapp and his coaching staff coaxed him to work hard in the gym and come back stronger. He did exactly that.
Perhaps the most notable turning point - bar the rebuke from his former manager - came in a European Champions League game against Inter Milan in 2010, when he made their world-class defence look truly amateurish with a hat-trick. For the first time, Spain properly took notice, and the "Incredi-Bale" headlines first surfaced. The Spanish newspaper El Mundo wrote: "Bale combines the height and build of an 800-metre runner like Steve Ovett with the acceleration and directness of a rugby winger like Bryan Habana."
It was then that Real's long drawn-out love affair with Bale began, where they first planted the seeds of interest in the player. It has been a long and drawn-out pursuit.
The appeal of the player is easy to see. Like Ronaldo, he's big and difficult to stop, he's quick and has an ability to find another gear at the click of his heels.
"He makes things look easy," said Zinedine Zidane, the former Real midfielder and current sporting director. "His pace is frightening, his acceleration is unbelievable because of his ability to go through the gears in very little space."
It's not just his speed but his ability to run all day long that appeals. He covered an average of eight miles per Premier League game last season - more than any other player - and he puts that down to his 1,500m running as a youngster. Defenders despise him. As Manchester City's Micah Richards said: "He made me feel an inch tall; took me to pieces. He just doesn't stop running. It's ridiculous."
There are unlikely to be the unwanted, extra-curricular activities that have affected some of the other galácticos in the Spanish capital. Bale is a teetotaller - of alcohol he says: "I don't like the taste".
His partner, Emma Rhys-Jones - at whom his heart goal celebration is aimed - is his childhood sweetheart, and the couple have a daughter, Alba Violet, who turns one in October. The trio currently live together in a £1.8m house in Chigwell, Essex. He has managed to keep both very much out of the limelight but, as a galáctico in Madrid, that won't be so easy to manage.
Bale will learn that private-life intrusion is all part and parcel of being immersed in one of the world's most famous football clubs. He's diving into a goldfish bowl.
He will lean heavily on his wider family, too. He's incredibly close to his dad, Frank, whom Bale describes as his hero, and mum, Debbie. It was his dad who first pushed him into football and remains his staunchest critic. As Bale said recently: "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."
The 24-year-old was first spotted playing for Eglwys Newydd Primary School in Cardiff, Wales - back then, Ryan Giggs was his idol - where he appeared on the radar of his first club, Southampton. By the time Bale was playing at Whitchurch High School, he was so good that his teacher made him play one-touch football with his less-favoured right foot in practice sessions. That teacher, Gwyn Morris, said: "Gareth has a fierce determination to succeed and has the character and qualities to achieve his personal goals. He's one of the most unselfish individuals that I have had the pleasure to help educate."
But does he have the global appeal? For now, he won't shift shirts in the club shop like one former Premier League-to-La Liga convert, David Beckham, did. Clearly there's the British appeal, as he appears alongside Lionel Messi on the cover of the UK version of the Fifa 14 video game; he's yet to grace global versions.
If there's one aspect still hanging over Bale, it's the criticisms that he's a diver. He was booked more for diving than any other Premier League player last season. He repeatedly insists that the number of tumbles that he takes are because he runs at such speed that he's easily felled.
The pace isn't in doubt - as a 14-year-old, he ran the 100m in 11.4 seconds - but at the same age it was also well-known that he did not like to be kicked and would hit the deck with alarming ease. In Spain, where dramatics appear to be more tolerated, even welcomed, this shouldn't be as much of a problem.
The bigger issue, though, is that aforementioned price tag. Will it change football forever? Probably not, as the fees will get bigger as television revenue increase alarmingly, and salaries and sales grow in line. It won't be long before the world gets its first £100m player - even if Bale falls under that mark - and the sums concerning the Welshman will be forgotten. Even more rapidly if Bale, as Real hope, slots into a role with the club with immediate effect.
July 16, 1989 Born in Cardiff, Wales
April 17, 2006 Makes debut for Southampton, at the age of 16 years and 275 days
May 27, 2006 Makes international debut
August 6, 2006 Scores first league goal
October 7, 2006 Scores first international goal for Wales
May 25, 2007 Transfers to Tottenham in a £10m deal
October 20, 2010 Scores first senior hat-trick, in 4-3 defeat to Inter Milan in the Champions League
June 27, 2012 Signs new, four-year deal, committing him to Tottenham until 2016
July, 2013 Tells Tottenham boss Andre Villas-Boas that he wants to leave the club
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Updated: August 29, 2013 04:00 AM