For the first time in five long years, we got to celebrate with Gareth Bale again. We’ve been able to admire from afar – his storming run past Marc Barta in the Copa del Rey was a classic; his winning header in 2014’s Champions League final surreal; his heroics at Euro 2016 inspiring. But in Kiev, we finally rejoiced once more in the ecstasy that is to watch Bale at his breath-taking best.
Don’t try and deny it – as the Welshman streaked away with that familiar growl of aggressive celebration on his face, you dreamt. Just a little bit. You dreamt that the recent rumours have been true, that the fairy-tale reunion might happen. For the next few minutes, in the hallucinatory glow of Bale’s magnificence, you buried the memory of the skipped training sessions and the matching pink hat and t-shirt combo. You chose to ignore the economic logistics that provide the largest obstacle in those dreams becoming a reality. You did all that because Bale had just taken you back to those moments in time where he would defy logic, and opened your mind up to every possibility. And you were not alone.
Geographical distance and injuries have sometimes fogged the memory on how destructive a force of nature Bale is on the pitch. A single moment of artistry had it all come flooding back. It was not just the nature of the goal. The self-assurance to be left on the bench for the second consecutive Champions League final before coming on and attempting that skill adds to the impressiveness of the feat. Bale is a modern superstar – Britain’s best footballer of the last decade – he knows his status and continues to thrive off it, even in the shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo.
At Tottenham, this confidence didn’t derive from controlling games from start to finish. Instead, Bale would forge devastating moments to put other teams to the sword. A few seconds here to leave a full-back feeling mentally and physically disarmed. Half a second there to rip a shot into the top corner and flip the script of a game.
A perfect example came towards the end of Bale’s final season at White Hart Lane. Spurs had stormed from 1-0 down to 2-1 up against Manchester City with two goals in four minutes – one of those comebacks that warps a crowd into ferocity. Bale was making his return from injury and had been peripheral at best. After Jermain Defoe put them in the lead, Spurs didn’t look like a team that needed their talisman to close out victory. But Bale was then the symbol of a winning Tottenham – Spurs had not won a match without him scoring for almost four months. And yet, as he tended to, Bale made himself the unofficial match-winner anyway. He burst onto a through-ball just minutes after Defoe’s strike, and hurtled towards the onrushing Joe Hart. Without a stutter, he lifted the ball over Hart, hurdled the Manchester City goalkeeper himself and continued his run towards his delirious believers before the ball had even touched the net.
And ‘believers’ is exactly the right word. Because, as Bale sprinted maniacally with his arms outstretched in the sunshine, you believed he had always had things under control. When the clock ticked towards ninety and Spurs were fruitlessly running at a brick wall, you believed Bale would take responsibility. And in that game against City, when he had ghosted through, rusty from injury, you believed he would still make it all about him. It is that belief that makes you perk up when you see Bale step on the grass. It’s the anticipation of being in the Gareth Bale splash zone – all jet-fuelled runs, spring-heeled leaps and rasping shots from his left-foot-cannon.
So, when Bale entered the fray on the hour mark in Kiev on Saturday night, we all knew what could happen – we had just forgotten what it feels like when it does. As the ball looped over Loris Karius, the feeling of that belief being repaid swelled in us again, mingling with disbelief; this goal was extraordinary, even for him.
Built like a marble sculpture, Bale was made to be a superhero. Unlike some great footballers, his legacy is forged by iconic moments. At Spurs, it was the nights against Inter and the last-minute rockets. At Real, it has been all about the grand moments in the grand finals. For Wales, his one-man mission to get them to, and then excel in, a major tournament will forever be a part of national folklore. Those moments are why it is such a privilege to have him in your team.
Saturday breathed new life into a fire that had always been there, but had been dulled by Spurs’ improvement and Bale’s personal difficulties. His post-match comments dangled the carrot. If, by some miracle, Bale did end up back at Tottenham, he would not recognise much. For a start, he would no longer be the best player there.
That hardly matters now. He would be the returning hero, the one that left and conquered the world. Mythical. Return home to Ithaca now great Odysseus, your triumphs on foreign land have immortalised you.
It probably won’t happen. It probably can’t. But now we have been reminded what it would feel like if it did. And it would be glorious.