How Gareth Bale Conquered Europe and Earned His Ballon d'Or Nomination

Tim Collins@@TimDCollinsFeatured ColumnistNovember 6, 2014

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Dressed smartly but looking decidedly anxious, Gareth Bale rose from his seat to embrace Florentino Perez before positioning himself behind the microphone set up in the centre of the Santiago Bernabeu. 

There, underneath the warm September sun of the Spanish capital, the world's most expensive footballer nervously addressed the thousands of Real Madrid fans who'd arrived to greet the quietly spoken Welshman. 

Overwhelmed by the reception for his presence, you could have excused Bale—a humble young man from Cardiff—if he'd made a hash of a few lines of Spanish and wilted in the face of such an extravagant unveiling, a setting that's unparalleled in the world game. 

But he didn't.

Instead, he got straight to the core of why he was there, immediately touching on his new club's most obvious goal, Real Madrid's burning obsession: La Decima. 

"I just want to say that it's absolutely amazing to be herea dream come trueand I hope I can help the team bring success to the club," the then-24-year-old said once the crowd had quieted somewhat. "Hopefully this year we can win the 10th European title."

As those words exited his mouth, standing there in his tailored black suit in what he later described as a "surreal situation," it's unlikely Bale could have envisaged just how central he would be to the delivery of that very title.  

Manu Fernandez/Associated Press

So often now, football is spoken about in numbers. In an age of statistical fixation, we feel compelled to quantify everything; appearances, goals, assists, saves, trophies and countless other indicators of performance perpetually discussed numerically. 

Undoubtedly, such a shift has increased our understanding of the game, just as it's done in almost every sporting domain. But the preoccupation with sets of figures can also make our view of football extremely rigid; our perceptions only justified if they're supported by the numbers. 

The Cristiano Ronaldo-Lionel Messi debate? Let's pull out the calculators. Who's the better striker of Luis Suarez, Diego Costa, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Karim Benzema and Sergio Aguero? Go and get the stat sheet. 

Such a process of determination is perfectly valid, but it's also inflexible and restrictive. Some things just aren't quantifiable. 

And it's for that reason why Bale's calendar year in 2014—one that's earned him a Ballon d'Or nomination—feels noteworthy: It can't be defined by statistics. Summing up the Welshman's year in terms of goals, assists, key passes, accuracy rates, successful take-ons and number of haircuts misses the point entirely.

Bale's year has been about moments and conquered challenges, not numbers.  

In 20, 30, 50, maybe 70 years' time, when your recollection of the game's history in your lifetime becomes blurred by the sheer volume of what you've witnessed, are you going to remember his stat line for 2014? Are you going to remember a five-game stretch in La Liga that prompted WhoScored.com to send out a tweet with some sort of statistical achievement?

If you think you will, call the aforementioned outlet's job department. But most likely, you'll be with the rest of us, who couldn't give a damn what the data once said but won't forget that 50-yard slalom at the Mestalla that won the Copa del Rey final, or that decisive, go-ahead goal in extra time of the Champions League final at the Estadio da Luz that clinched La Decima. 

"I don't think I’ve ever seen anything like it," Xabi Alonso said of the first.

"He turned up when he was needed," Carlo Ancelotti remarked of the second.

VALENCIA, SPAIN - APRIL 16:  Gareth Bale (R) of Real Madrid beats Marc Bartra   of Barcelona during the  Copa del Rey Final between Real Madrid and Barcelona at Estadio Mestalla on April 16, 2014 in Valencia, Spain.  (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
Denis Doyle/Getty Images

LISBON, PORTUGAL - MAY 24: Gareth Bale of Real Madrid heads in their second goal during the UEFA Champions League Final between Real Madrid and Atletico de Madrid at Estadio da Luz on May 24, 2014 in Lisbon, Portugal.  (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty I
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

In his first year carrying the "world's most expensive" tag, Bale, at 24 and as the first Welshman ever to reside at the Bernabeu, scored two of the three biggest goals in Spanish football (Diego Godin grabbed the other when he clinched the league title for Atletico Madrid at the Camp Nou) and perhaps the single biggest goal in all of Europe. 

That's his year right there. Scarcely anything else matters. Bale's 2014 needn't be quantified, merely remembered.

Moreover, he doesn't need to win the Ballon d'Or (he won't)—he followed the intimidating path forged by icons in Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane, David Beckham and a pair of Ronaldos and won. That constitutes success by any definition. 

LISBON, PORTUGAL - MAY 24:  Gareth Bale of Real Madrid celebrates with the Champions League trophy during the UEFA Champions League Final between Real Madrid and Atletico de Madrid at Estadio da Luz on May 24, 2014 in Lisbon, Portugal.  (Photo by Laurence
Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

What's also critically important to acknowledge is how he got there. The magnitude of exactly what Bale has achieved in 2014 cannot be underestimated. 

British players don't have a rich history of succeeding abroad, stemming from an apparent reluctance to escape the comforts of home. As Bleacher Report's Graham Ruthven pointed out, "the sight of a Brit in Spain is somewhat common, but Bale wasn’t wearing Union Jack shorts with socks and sandals on his way to a booze cruise."

One can't consider the Welshman a pioneer—there have been others before him—but he does stand as the most recent example of what can be achieved by British footballers when crossing the channel. 

And though Glenn Hoddle insisted that he wasn't ready for the move, Bale's navigation of the obstacles inherent in a switch of country, culture and language when swapping north London for Madrid debunked the myth that Brits are incompatible with the game played on continental Europe. 

"It was a massive change for me but in time I have become very comfortable here," he was able to say with ease this summer to Pete Jenson of the Daily Mail

That comfort, though, isn't achieved without effort. "After training, he's one of the last to leave, whether it's having additional treatment, the gym, or ice baths," Real Madrid assistant coach Paul Clement told Sid Lowe of The Guardian last December. "His food is right. He's a very, very good professional."

A devastating athlete most suited to the wing, Bale has also naturally followed the lead set by Ronaldo, regularly speaking of his learning process as an heir apparent to the Ballon d'Or winner.

The results, as most would acknowledge, have been profound.

MADRID, SPAIN - OCTOBER 05:  Cristiano Ronaldo of Real Madrid celebrates with Gareth Bale after scoring his team's 5th and his third goal against Club Athletic during the La Liga match between Real Madrid CF and Athletic Club at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu
Denis Doyle/Getty Images

But there's an important difference between the former Spurs star and his most prominent teammate, relating to their respective paths to the world's most powerful sporting institution. The point of contrast also stands with other Galacticos who've gone before him.

When Figo made the move to the Bernabeu, he did so as a dual La Liga champion from Barcelona. A year later, Zidane was the same in Serie A and a Champions League finalist when he made the switch from Juventus.

As the Galactico policy continued, Ronaldo—the Brazilian kind—came from Inter Milan as a World Cup champion and Golden Boot winner, while both Beckham and the latter Ronaldo had won practically every desirable honour there was at Manchester United before they first made the trek from northwest England to central Spain. 

Bale? He came from Tottenham, a club perennially stuck a step or five below the elite. And hailing from Wales, major international tournaments have escaped him, too. 

Consider, just for the a second, the extent of those differences.

His predecessors arrived at Real Madrid carrying similar expectation, but they were global icons and established winners as they did so. 

Bale was presented at that glitzy unveiling having never entered the Premier League top three, having never progressed to a European semi-final, having never won more than a League Cup, having rarely had a world-class companion and without a collection of British compatriots to turn to as he embarked on what is perhaps football's most intimidating challenge. 

The doubts raised by such a set of circumstances? Brushed aside.

The biggest prize on offer? Claimed.

The telling moments that arrived? Seized upon. 

Anyway you look at, Bale conquered Europe. A Ballon d'Or nomination was much deserved. 

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