For Gareth Bale, the pitch and the playground may as well have been the same thing. Watch back some of his greatest goals and you can almost glimpse the school tie flapping behind him as he runs, a battered sponge ball sticking to his feet, the cautious teacher carrying a tray of orange squash across the penalty area.
Of course Bale always played to win. But in the 30-yard screamers and lightning bursts of speed, you can spot something else there too: a young man playing for the sake of playing, for the thrill of solving a new problem, playing to feel. What was the point in running unless you were going to do it as jaw-droppingly fast as possible? What was the point in taking a free-kick unless you were going to leather it into the top corner? And what was the point of being a footballer at all if you didn’t try these things?
This is not to state that Bale lacked ambition or a head for strategy. Nobody finishes a career with a trophy haul of three La Liga titles, five Champions Leagues and one Copa del Rey (yes, that one) without a pretty keen idea of what they want and how they are going to get it. But it is probably fair to say that Bale was a player of moments rather than model consistency, a player of monuments rather than milestones. Sometimes those moments lasted for a fraction of a second, sometimes for a few seconds, sometimes for half an hour, sometimes – as in 2012/13 – for an entire nine-month Premier League season. He could probably have won more than he did. He could probably have played more than he did. He could probably have left Real Madrid a little earlier than he did.
And it is at Madrid where we should probably start, a club where Bale signed for a world-record fee, won everything there was to win and yet somehow lost something of himself too. In hindsight, Cristiano Ronaldo in 2013 was simply too good and too brash to be surpassed or outdone. Most Madrid players either got this and devoted themselves to a life of service (Karim Benzema, Luka Modric, Ángel Di María), or they left. Bale did neither. Initially deployed on the right wing, he demanded and eventually got a more central role. His output was merely very good. Injuries began to bite. Meanwhile Madrid’s fans never quite warmed to him in the way they did Ronaldo, and through protracted contract standoffs would later turn on him entirely.
But when he ran hot, nobody could touch him. The scintillating bicycle kick against Liverpool in the 2018 Champions League final is probably his best-remembered goal. Then there was the outrageous solo effort in the 2014 Copa del Rey final against Barcelona, in which Bale took the ball on the halfway line, ran outside the touchline for a quarter of the length of the pitch before cheekily poking a shot through the goalkeeper’s legs. This was perhaps the fullest expression of Playground Bale: the sort of goal most players could scarcely even envisage, let alone attempt, let alone execute.
Then of course there was the apprenticeship at Tottenham: a thrilling hat-trick against Internazionale at San Siro in 2010, the destruction of Maicon in the return game, an otherworldly volley against Stoke, a 2012-13 campaign that stands as one of the great Premier League seasons of all time. In it Bale scored 21 goals, nine of them from outside the area, four of them winning goals in the 78th minute or later. In so doing he single-handedly dragged a squad containing Steven Caulker, Kyle Naughton and Lewis Holtby to the verge of the Champions League. And to think this was once a skinny £5m left-back who failed to win any of his first 24 games for the club and was initially kept out of the side by Benoît Assou-Ekotto.
But then the tale of Bale is always one of growth as much as of expression. If Southampton gave him a start and Tottenham catapulted him to stardom, then it was in Wales red that he went on the greatest journey of all. When Bale made his debut as a 16-year-old in 2006, Wales had not qualified for any major tournament in 48 years. They have now made three of the last four, and if Bale has not been the only key member of that side he has been its lungs and its heart, its ambition and its audacity, its fun and its buzz. In spirit and attitude Wales is Bale’s team, and here again Bale departs having bequeathed a clutch of match-winning, heart-stopping memories.
It all ended a little meekly, perhaps. Those years of wastage and rot at Madrid, a largely joyless loan to José Mourinho’s Tottenham, a half-hearted spell at Los Angeles, a poor debut World Cup campaign culminating in a half-time substitution against England. This is fine. This happens to the very best. And perhaps it was inevitable that for a player who played to feel, who specialised in crafting moments of perfection and wonder, the half-cocked, pedalled-down extended dotage was never going to suit him. Not for Bale the gradual wind-down through the divisions, nor the pampered sinecure in China or the Gulf.
You will still hear the view espoused in certain quarters that Bale somehow failed to fulfil his destiny, to get the most out of his talent. Which means … well, what exactly?
Perhaps sometimes we forget that football is not a clinical exercise or a game of numbers or records but a heaving, humming, sobbing, screaming flick-book of pure memories: memories treasured and memories misremembered. In 17 years as a professional footballer, Bale has produced more such memories than any footballer from these shores. And let that define him.