Bale settling in to the life of a Galactico
On and off the pitch, the Welshman says he is making himself at home with his new club and the results are striking, writes Richard Martin
Gareth Bale is on the sofa, unwinding after kicking footballs into the five-a-side goal. The sun is shining and Bale is dressed in a shirt, jeans and a box-fresh pair of Adidas trainers. He appears relaxed, a man at ease with his new surroundings. And a man beginning to revel in his new career with Real Madrid.
It is nearly four months since Bale was introduced to 30,000 fans at the Bernabeu following his move from Tottenham. It was a glamorous presentation, one that Bale described as "surreal". Some remarked that it was a ceremony that did not seem to fit with this most modest of modern-day superstars but for Bale it meant the beginning of a new chapter in his incredible footballing journey.
It also brought to an end the three-and-a-half-month media circus around the 24-year-old's transfer. Once the presentation was out of the way it meant he could concentrate on the most important thing in his career: the football.
As he explains now: "I wanted to get out of my hotel as soon as possible because you have media outside, people outside wandering around, so you're not able to relax, you're stuck in a room, it feels like a prison cell at some point. Of course it wasn't that bad, it was a brilliant, exciting new time."
He was in the hotel for three weeks at the start of his time here, but now he has found his own home in the city where he can get away from the mayhem.
"It was important to get out at some point and to try and get into a house," he says. "You're able to relax, watch TV, go on the internet. It just makes life easier when you're able to do that.
"I've had my family and friends over which is the most important thing for me, being able to relax with them and enjoy their company is exactly what you need to settle in."
Bale says the move has helped him settle in the city, and as a result it appears to have inspired some incredible recent performances for Carlo Ancelotti's side. He has overcome that niggling thigh strain that was with him for the first two months here and has now scored eight goals and provided six assists in the last nine games.
Madrid may have fallen five points behind Barcelona and Atletico Madrid at the top of La Liga, but with more than half the season to go, no one at the club is panicking, as Bale stresses: "We firmly believe we're a great team and that we can win the league this year."
Things are looking even better in the Champions League. Madrid took 16 points and scored an unparalleled 20 goals -- of which Bale contributed two -- in the group stage, and in the first knockout round they have been handed the favourable draw of Schalke, sixth in the Bundesliga.
The desire to lift what would be a 10th European Cup, referred to simply as La Decima, has consumed Madrid ever since Zinedine Zidane's volley against Bayer Leverkusen won the club the trophy for the ninth time back in 2002, with a star-struck 12-year-old Bale watching on TV in Cardiff.
La Decima comes up in almost every interview with a Madrid player or director, and Bale even referred to it in his speech at his presentation.
But he insists: "I wouldn't say it's pressure. The fact it's the 10th title will be special for the club but for everybody at the club, the players, the staff, we want to win the Champions League because we want to win every trophy we're playing in."
Bale appears to have adapted to the pace of Spanish life with ease, but being a non-drinker he admits he is not acquainted with the nightlife of Madrid just yet.
The biggest difference, he agrees, is the structure of the day. "Certain things are a lot different," he says. "The times that people eat here is a lot different, they eat very late at night. I am comfortable with that but I don't need to be eating at 11. I've been here for a while now and I've started to settle and get used to it."
Much of his spare time is spent keeping up with the Premier League and, he says, he has been watching a lot of basketball on TV, and has plans to watch Real Madrid's basketball team with Luka Modric, his team-mate at Tottenham who he has been reunited with at Real.
In addition to former Tottenham team-mate Modric, Bale has been leaning on the other players in the Madrid squad to have played in the Premier League, such as Ronaldo, Xabi Alonso and Alvaro Arbeloa.
Bale says that sharing a dressing- room with Ronaldo, Alonso and Sergio Ramos means that, unlike at Spurs, where Bale was the talisman, he is just one of many stars at Madrid.
"At Tottenham I was always trying to get on to the ball and make everything tick, whereas here everybody's doing that, there are world-class players all around the pitch and you're able to concentrate just on your game rather than bringing the whole team forward, and I'm enjoying that."
For Bale, the challenge of adapting to a different league can only be a good thing, and he encourages more British players to follow his example in leaving the Premier League and heading abroad. "I enjoyed my time in England but I also like other styles of football and coming to Spain, I'll learn other types of football, different ways to play and it will make me better as an all-round player, and hopefully it will make me better for my country. If other players did that I'm sure it'd help their games as well."
The language, though, could be a barrier. He has been having Spanish lessons twice a week and says he hopes his understanding of it improves as he will be able to communicate more with his team-mates and learn more about Spanish life.
"I understand some of it so I'm all right in training. I say 'Hello' and 'Good morning' to the boys and 'How are you?' and all that, but the advanced conversation I'm limited to at the moment.
"Good thing is I don't understand the abuse I'm getting, which is helpful," he laughs. Ignorance was bliss for Bale as he walked on to the pitch of the Nou Camp to the sound of 90,000 screaming Barcelona fans for the first El Clasico of the season. Barcelona won the game 2-1 but Bale believes the experience of playing in what he calls "the biggest game in club football" will stand him in good stead.
"It obviously wasn't an ideal time for me, coming when I hadn't had any pre-season or any games. The manager picked me, thought I could do a job and I tried to do as best as I could for the team. Obviously it wasn't the best result for us, we deserved a lot more out of the game. I think we were the better team but football never works like that."
Fortunately for Bale, his next game, against Seville at the Bernabeu, saw his, and his team's, fortunes change.
Bale lashed the ball into the top corner to give Madrid the lead after 13 minutes and score his first goal at his home stadium. He then added another, from a free-kick, and later provided two assists in a 10-goal thriller which Madrid won 7-3, the same scoreline by which they beat Eintracht Frankfurt to win the 1960 European Cup. It felt like a turning point.
At Bale's presentation, Real Madrid president Florentino Perez told him: "You have arrived at the most demanding club in the world, but you will always have us by your side." Bale can testify to all of that and adds that he is particularly grateful to be able to count on Carlo Ancelotti's English assistant coach, Paul Clement, who he says has been "massively important" for him this season.
"He's a great person, we get on very well, we have a great relationship now," he says. "Obviously him being from England helps me a great deal and it enables me to understand fully what I need to do on the pitch."
While Clement acts as a pastoral figure, working with Zidane adds to the surreal experience of being at Madrid. "When he joins in training he teaches a few people some lessons, he's still got it. It's great to have him around, being such a legend in the club. I used to watch him when I was younger and he was unbelievable. He leads the way."
With role models like Zidane the next phase of the remarkable career of Gareth Bale appears in safe hands. Bale is in a good place. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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