Gareth Bale: Galactico? Me?

The world's most expensive player tells FFT's Andrew Murray all about how a down-to-earth lad from Cardiff ended up at the world's richest football club...

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It’s a bitterly cold winter’s afternoon in Madrid. Punctuated by the occasional wisp of cloud, a clear blue sky kisses the Spanish capital’s tree-lined eastern suburbs in a dim glow that is yet to fully melt the morning’s sharp frost. A glacial stillness hangs in the chilly air.

Everywhere, that is, except for the steamed-up windows of the Las Mercedes gym in Rejas – a gridiron conglomeration of newly built offices, shops and upmarket apartments a runway’s length from Madrid airport. It’s 1pm and a keen group of middle-aged fitness freaks are being cajoled through a punishing spinning class. Condensation gathers on the glass panels, the gym’s hot, sweaty air expelled into the nippy outside world.

Next door, the action is just as frenetic, as FFT passes a hip-hop dance group busy perfecting flips, twists and waltzes and three ponytailed Spaniards wearing Motorhead and AC/DC t-shirts animatedly discussing the previous night’s football (Real Madrid are a good side, apparently) to enter our temporary TV studio home for the day.

Like everyone else here, we’re awaiting one person in particular – Gareth Bale. This Galactico, however, doubles as one of the most in-demand sports stars on the planet and he’s running late.

As the sun sets over Madrid’s distant skyline, word reaches the studio that Bale is en route, but has to cross the city in rush hour traffic. Rehearsals go into overdrive: the body-building WWE type hoists a plaster cast globe above his head as if a contemporary Atlas, the hip-hop grew dancing more now for warmth than any practice. At 8pm, an apologetic Bale arrives. So does an expectant hush. Game time.

A couple of hours, and an oversized set of inflatable lips (keep reading), later and Real Madrid’s most expensive Galactico sits down for a chat with FFT. It might be 10.20pm, but Bale is relaxed and very chatty, unbelievably so for someone who so far today has trained, attended a gala dinner at the expressed request of Blanco president Florentino Perez and appeared at another sponsor’s event before rocking up to this Adidas shoot.

“It’s been a crazy day,” he laughs. “They’re not all quite as busy as this, I promise you.” If the Beatles sang about 3,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire in their own A Day In The Life, just what does this down-to-earth lad from Cardiff, near Monmouthshire, get up to at the world’s sole super club? As he’s about to tell FFT, avoiding nutmegs, escaping the restaurant rush and running away from spiders, mainly…

“When you see yourself bracketed with Zidane, it’s a bit strange”

Whitchurch is a quiet, unassuming suburb to the north of Cardiff city centre. It has everything you would expect from a modern commuter village: a bustling high street, library, hospital and a number of schools. In the late ‘90s, it was also home to a tiny, stick-thin Gareth Bale. Look closely, and you can still see the marks scorched into any grassy area on which football could conceivably be played.

At eight, the prodigious Bale began training at Southampton’s satellite academy in Bath, an hour’s journey across the Severn Bridge into England. Two years later at Whitchurch High School, where he would line up alongside future Welsh rugby captain Sam Warburton, Bale was so good his PE teacher banned him from using his left foot and made him play with one touch.

In short, football is something that Bale has done every day for as long as he can remember. The only difference now is that while a morning kickabout once involved Warburton and other members of class 8C in the playground, it now encompasses La Liga, Champions League and Ballon d’Or winners.

“Does it dawn on me, who I train with?” he repeats back at FFT, almost shakily, as if asking himself the same question. “Not really, it’s just normal. You get used to the stars being around you all the time. Obviously, on your first day, you want to impress everybody, but once you’re set up at the club, it’s no different to Southampton, Tottenham or Wales, to be honest.

“I just get up and head off to training. I like to prepare mentally for training on the drive there. It helps you focus. I usually get a bit of treatment once training’s over, do a little bit of core work in the gym, or go for a swim. A bit of recovery, ice baths, that sort of thing.

“After a bit of lunch at home, I’ll maybe go out with my family if it’s a nice day or just relax at home. By the evening have some dinner, relax and get ready either for the next day’s training or game.”

High on his list of each day’s priorities at Madrid’s space age Valdebebas training ground, however, is to avoid becoming a YouTube sensation as enduring as the Wealdstone Raider. Every session begins with some 20 minutes of rondos – essentially piggy in the middle, the ball knocked around the outer circle at dizzying speed – providing the perfect setting for one-upmanship.

“The one thing you don’t want is to be on the end of a nutmeg,” laughs the 25-year-old. “Especially with a row of cameras watching! We’re always getting killed out there, I just try not to let it be me. Whenever someone gets nutmegged, we’re all jumping and joking around.

“If you get ‘megged, or you manage 20 passes without the ball being touched, you stay in for an extra go. They’ll do anything to keep you in the middle. If the ball clips your leg on the way through, they say it still counts. I mean, that’s not a proper nutmeg, is it?!”

Sat in a grey hoody and loose-fitting black shorts, in a classic professional sportsman’s pose, Bale is in a setting he knows best. Football. He talks about it perceptively, but with an air of self-deprecation rare among the elite.

Days like these – gala lunches, filming and photoshoots – aren’t exactly the norm, even for the world’s most expensive player. Neither are the never-ending requests that come through, which in the past have included one fan asking the world’s most expensive player to intervene in the Palestine-Israel conflict. Which is just weird.

For his part, Bale finds his whole situation slightly bizarre.

“It’s quite surreal,” he half-laughs, scratching the back of his neck. “When you see some of the players who have had that tag, like Zinedine Zidane, it’s strange to be in that bracket. It doesn’t really affect me, though. I just try to get on with it and lead a normal life. It’s completely out of my hands and is just a fee Spurs and Real Madrid decided to pay each other.”

It’s a dream come true to score the winner against Barcelona in a final, but I don’t feel it’s changed me too much”

Eighteen months have passed since Bale’s arrival in Spain. After a slow start – a combination of injuries, lack of pre-season and inevitable early adaptation issues – the Welsh flyer excelled in his first Madrid season. Barely fit and looking uncomfortable as a centre-forward in his first Clasico in October 2013, it didn’t take Bale long to dispel the notion he only made Blancos boss Carlo Ancelotti’s starting XI because of presidential proclamation. Within four months, Bale was the first La Liga player to break double figures in goals and assists in 2013-14.