Fortunes could have oh so easily plummeted for Gareth Bale when he made his £86 million move from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid last summer.
On the face of it a move to one of European football’s elite powers was the next logical step for the rising Wales international coming off the back of a campaign wherein he almost single-handedly kept Spurs’ reputation as Champions League spot-challengers alive. 26 goals in all competitions from an advanced midfield position was enough to convince Florentino Perez to meet Daniel Levy’s extortionate valuation of Bale and the rest, as they say, is history.
The initial concern
Of course the subsequent fame the explosive left-footer has found at the Santiago Bernabeu wasn’t simply handed to him on a plate. The expectation from the stands, forged from years of housing the best footballers in the world, and the pressure from the rest of the world which inevitably comes when such a huge sum is paid, could have broken him with minimal ease.
Older and wiser stars than Bale have been attracted to the bright lights of Madrid only to find themselves unable to replicate the fine form which got them there in the first place. Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder, Kaka and Michael Owen are just a few examples of household names who called the Bernabeu home for a time without ever really living up to their initial promise.
It’s the latter of those individuals who shares the most similarities with Bale, primarily down to the fact that they both shone in the Premier League before departing for the shores of Spain. For Owen, who became a cult figure at Liverpool prior to his transfer to Madrid, the lifestyle and ever-present burden of being a Galactico simply weighed too heavily on him, and took a toll which prevented him from making the impact he might have hoped.
The Anfield favourite was the first to warn Bale of the potential pitfalls of life in the legendary white of Real, and it was a message not to be taken lightly.
Bale's success at Madrid
Yet the 25-year-old defied plenty of critics during a maiden season in La Liga which saw him become a vital cog in the Madrid machine and play an instrumental part during the club’s romp to a long awaited 10th Champions League title. Rather than clash with Cristiano Ronaldo, as many pessimists predicted, Bale became the third prong in an efficient attacking line up opposite the Portuguese superstar, with Karim Benzema acting as the spearhead in the most devastating front trio in Europe.
It’s easy to claim that he was always likely to be good at Madrid thanks to the wealth of world-class talent supporting him, but make no mistake, Bale has worked harder than ever to ensure that the dream partnership of himself and Ronaldo lived up to its billing.
His Spartan-like work ethic is evidenced by the positive change in his physique over the past year, and, in a fashion not too dissimilar to Ronaldo’s, he’s managed to enhance his physical capabilities whilst maintaining his raw talent. The images from Real’s pre-season training camp reflect the hours he has put in the gym, whilst his lung-bursting surge to leave Marc Bartra in the dust and score Madrid’s winner against Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final last term is proof that he’s lost none of his natural advantages.
What the stats say
Furthermore the stats speak for themselves. 22 goals in 44 competitions last year is only four shy of his personal best - attained during his last season at Tottenham - and he assisted 12 on top of that, that’s more than Franck Ribery (10), Neymar (8) and Eden Hazard (7). Then of course there was his season-defining header in the Champions League final, which allowed Madrid to finally break the deadlock against a stubborn, if albeit exhausted Atletico Madrid defence, and swing the game’s momentum in their favour.
It may have been Ronaldo whose picture was splashed all over the web the following day after he crashed home his late penalty - Madrid’s fourth goal on the night - but it was Bale who will go down on record as having netted the ‘winner’.
The path to glory
Despite his meteoric rise however Bale remains the same as ever. Still humble, still focused and still switched on enough to know that only through pushing himself to the limit can he hope to continue his upward climb.
It's a fact backed up by Wales international team-mate Neil Taylor, who spoke to GiveMeSport and offered his opinion on Bale's current standing.
"Gareth is still Gareth, I wouldn't say he's changed," Taylor said.
"He's had to adapt to where he works now, which is just the way it is for him, and it's a case of Gareth being one of the best players in the world right now and that's there for everybody to see.
"Hopefully for Wales he strikes a bit of fear into teams, and I think that Bale is definitely somebody you want in the squad. He's going to be one of the greats, for sure."
The best in the world?
Hauling ourselves to present day the question is now posed; just how good can Bale become?
His natural talent combined with his energy and passion to succeed mean that the sky really is the limit for the Cardiff-born forward. Yet it cannot be denied that there remains one one thing in his way of being recognised as perhaps the greatest player on the planet. Somewhat ironically it’s the man he has moulded himself after.
For at Madrid, no matter how well Bale performs or how many all-important goals he can score, Ronaldo remains king. The former Manchester United star is the beating heart of a diamond-skinned body under Carlo Ancelotti, and his status as the go-to-guy hasn’t been under threat since the moment he signed for the club in 2009.
The Ronaldo competition
Though there has never been the hostility between Bale and Ronaldo that some were convinced would get the better of them, in a situation wherein both players are crying out for the ball there is only ever going to be one winner. In the eyes of the club, the fans and practically anyone else whose opinion carries a shred of weight, Bale is merely a supporting act to an individual who emanates a brilliance only matched by his diminutive arch rival over at the Nou Camp.
The surprise opening
Fortunately for Bale, Ronaldo’s days at Madrid may just be numbered. Though it’s hard to imagine Perez ever consenting to his sale whilst he remains capable of kicking a ball the 29-year-old has publicly voiced his grumblings with regards to Angel di Maria’s sale to United, and comments made in recent days concerning a return to his former club have stoked the flames of speculation.
If the whispers are true and Ronaldo is indeed lining himself up for an eventual transfer back to Old Trafford then there can be no confusion over who Madrid will turn to in an attempt to cushion the blow felt by his departure. Bale has dedicated his last few years to becoming a player in Ronaldo’s image, it’s only right to assume that when given the chance he will step out of his shadow and pick up his mantle as the best player in the world.