You can easily imagine the ruddy-faced Harry Redknapp striding up and down the deck of a 19th-century corvette sailing toward Malacca, gently being rocked to sleep by the intoxicating smells of the tropics. He is one of those veteran British soccer managers who, had they been born at an earlier time, would have surely ended up serving in the Royal Navy. A keen businessman, a good conversationalist and gifted with a natural sensitivity that lets him connect with his players in a casual yet dignified way, Redknapp coached the Tottenham Hotspur team between 2008 and 2012. One day, he was asked whether he would give the young Gareth Bale a few days off.
"I gave him four days' rest and suggested that he go abroad to find a beach somewhere," he said. Instead, the boy went home to his mom.
Redknapp then shrugged and said that this explained everything.
More than two years have elapsed since that invitation to adventure. To a young man, that's almost a lifetime. For Bale, it was time enough to build himself a professional reputation. He scored 21 goals in 33 matches in the last Premier League season and was named the player of the year. In the meantime, he fathered a little girl and settled down in a house in Essex with his partner and child. He also bought himself a Range Rover and an Audi A8 convertible; and while he was at it, he found time to drop by the operating room and get his ears fixed — those same sticking-out ears that schoolkids used to laugh at so much. And to highlight his new look, he changed his hairdo, shaving off the sides and combing the top back for an aerodynamic effect. Now his look is in style: whether it was down to him, nobody knows, but he is definitely its most famous representative.
Today Bale is even more famous than he already was, because just over a week ago Real Madrid President Florentino Pérez decided to pay 100 million euros for him. This is the highest transfer fee ever paid for an athlete, an absolute record that makes one wonder about the added value of a man who says that when he goes out at night, his favorite drink is cold water. We are talking about a Welshman who turns his back on beer and would not dream of making a major decision without first consulting with his mother, Debbie.
Those who know him say he is a little bit naive, perhaps a bit absent-minded
Stephen, his maternal uncle — who still lives around the corner from the Bales' old terraced house in Cardiff — fishes out anecdotes about his famous nephew. "He was a real mummy's boy as a little kid," he says. "He always paid a lot of attention to her advice."
Friends from the Cardiff suburb where they and Gareth grew up assert that the boy can do just fine without alcoholic beverages, but could never dream of life without his family. He is 24, and has used this time to build himself a simple routine: practice every single sport within reach, then go home to mom first, and later to his girl. Emma Rhys-Jones is his high-school sweetheart, the same one he started dating eight years ago at Whitchurch High. Their daughter Alba Violet was born in October 2012.
Bale's existence has barely left a mark outside the playing fields. He was one of those introverted children who expressed his feelings by burning up energy. He practiced athletics, and was able to run the 100 meters in 11.4 seconds. He played rugby, hockey and soccer. His left foot earned him a reputation among the talent scouts. He joined Southampton's academy at age nine, and by 16 he was the second-youngest player to debut for the team. In 2007 he was acquired by Tottenham, where he soon made a name for himself with his speed, power and crossing ability. He slowly perfected his attacking skills, and was soon routinely scoring goals.
Debbie in the middle
Debbie Bale was at the helm of the family expedition that arrived at the Bernabéu last week for Bale's presentation ceremony. At age 55, sporting a mane of long blond hair and yellow-tinted glasses, Mrs Bale planted herself right behind Florentino Pérez, and the rest of the family arranged themselves around her. To her right was Gareth with girlfriend Emma and their daughter Alba, Emma's mother Suzanne McMurray, and her husband Frank Bale; to her left, her daughter Vicky, grandchildren Georgia and Max, her son-in-law Richard and her brother Dennis.
Technicians whose job it is to establish the value of players for Real Madrid fixed Bale's price at somewhere around 60 million euros. But Tottenham's appraisers figured it was more like 70 million. But the market's ways are mysterious. Florentino Pérez thought that he was in need of a dazzling move - he needed to acquire an idol that would help him regain the triumphant businessman aura that had recently lost some of its sheen. He needed to bring in an impressive player - someone who would look good in pictures. In these cases, British players are ideal because of their enormous commercial possibilities. All roads led to Bale.
There are highly complex psychological, business, cultural and political reasons for the extra price paid for Bale. Yet the man himself is a simple guy. Physically he would be your average Joe were it not for the protruding jaw and the imposing, globe-shaped skull. Soccer players tend to be street-wise creatures who are naughty by nature. But there is no trace of malice in the crystal-clear gaze of Gareth Bale. The people who know him say he is noble, a little naïve, perhaps somewhat absent-minded.
His representative, the sharp Jonathan Barnett, has managed his affairs with extreme professionalism. When Bale began making vast amounts of money, he founded a company called Primesure Limited, with 80 percent of the share going to the player and 20 percent to his parents. The Mirror newspaper says that Frank and Debbie received one million euros each as part of the transfer agreement between Tottenham and Real Madrid. Gareth is making close to 11 million euros a year, with a bonus of two million for doing little more than training. This is very likely the seventh-best salary in world soccer after those of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Leo Messi, Thiago Silva, Samuel Eto'o, Yaya Touré and Wayne Rooney. Not bad for a 24-year-old kid who drinks nothing but cold water.