Freddie Mickshik believes Gareth Bale’s sparkling performances could pave the way for a new wave of British players abroad…
Of the numerous British exports to Europe, few have delivered. This is undoubtedly due in part to a long era of Premier League dominance on the field coupled with financial clout off it, leaving little incentive for home-grown talent to fly the nest, and partly perhaps because the typical British-born player does not share the cosmopolitan outlook of his European or Latin-American counterpart.
Much has changed since the days of Kevin Keegan’s back-to-back Ballon d’Ors at Hamburg, let alone John Charles’ prolific spell at Juventus, which belongs to another age altogether. A low ebb of British football reached its nadir in the mid-1980s, with Keegan forging a trail for Brits in Europe followed most prominently and with greatly varying degrees of success by Gary Lineker, Mark Hughes, Ian Rush, Graeme Souness and Paul Gascoigne.
Spain went on to become the most popular destination for British players seeking pastures new, with the Galácticos policy at Real tending to attract more of England’s best than any of Los Blancos’s domestic counterparts: not since Gary Lineker has a player from the British Isles featured for Barcelona. Barca prefer to send La Masia graduates for a spell in England, in the manner of a concerned parent packing their son off to finishing school, before they return to the Catalan homeland, à la Fabregas and Pique.
It would be wrong to criticise the achievements of Real’s recent English imports: Michael Owen boasted La Liga’s best minutes-per-goal ratio in his solitary season in Spain, while Steve McManaman put in a man-of-the-match performance in the 2000 Champions League Final on his way to becoming the first and to date only Englishman to win Europe’s premier club tournament with a foreign side. Long before his Indian summers in Paris and Milan, David Beckham won only one league title with Real, but greatly impressed in his four-year spell in the Spanish capital. Perhaps the less said about Jonathan Woodgate, the better.
And now Gareth Bale. While many Madridistas were slow to accept the Welshman as a true Galactico, over the course of a topsy-turvy season – where almost inconceivably Atletico lead the table with four games to play – Bale has shaken off recurrent niggles to step out of Ronaldo’s considerable shadow and land the Copa del Rey with a dramatic, dazzling winner that sees him move to 20 goals for the campaign in all competitions.
Bale’s decider in the final of Spain’s premier Cup competition was a majestic coupling of startling athleticism and cool finesse. After knocking the ball past Marc Bartra, Bale showed such a turn of pace as to inspire a Roadrunner and Wile E Coyote cartoon version to sweep the web; the Welsh winger was clocked at almost 40 km/h, only a fraction under Usain Bolt’s top speed in his record-breaking 100m dash.
The context of the goal was as significant as the beauty of its execution. With Ronaldo sidelined, the stage was set and with Barcelona resurgent after a second-half equaliser, Bale’s swashbuckling run and finish five minutes from time brought instant memories of the Welshman’s illustrious compatriot 15 years ago.
The similarities between Bale’s goal and Ryan Giggs’s mazy dribble and hammer finish against Arsenal in the 1999 FA Cup semi-final do not end with the fact that both are cup-tie winners, however. That season Manchester United went on to lift the FA Cup, saw off Arsenal to secure the domestic double and beat Bayern Munich at the Nou Camp in the most dramatic denouement in the history of the Champions League to become the only British side ever to win the treble. Bale’s Real sit a point adrift of Atletico, but with the noisy neighbours and old enemy still to meet in the league their hopes remain high. For now Bale can look again to the inspiration of Giggs and Manchester United – who wanted to sign the Welsh prodigy in the summer – as he sets his sights on Bayern.