Managers often complain that they do not get a good view from the touchline but this time it could not have been better. Carlo Ancelotti called it “perfect”. From where he stood, the Real Madrid coach watched in awe as barely metres away Gareth Bale started the sprint that ended with him scoring what he admitted was the “biggest” goal of his career: a 50-metre gallop that won the Copa del Rey for Real Madrid. Alongside Ancelotti was Madrid’s assistant coach Paul Clement. “I’m not sure I have ever seen a goal like that,” he said.
There was a moment at the start of the run when the nearest anyone from Barcelona got to Bale was their manager Tata Martino. The Welshman’s first touch had been on the half way line and as he pushed it past Marc Bartra he was buffeted off the pitch but he did not stop.
Instead he sped by like a racing car using the pit lane to overtake, screeching back on to the track in the lead. As he passed Martino and accelerated, sprinting in a long arc, he tore through Barcelona’s technical area, where the turf slopes downwards away from the field.
If they looked at him on the Barcelona bench, he looked only at the ball. “I actually scored a similar goal for Wales not too long ago where I had to run off the pitch so I was just trying to get round him any way I could and carry on,” Bale said. “Thankfully, the goal came at the end of it. The only thing I was thinking was that I had to get round him. I just had my eyes on the ball.”
Once he had a lead, there was no way Bartra could recover. The young defender admitted that he felt his muscles contract. Bale raced away and nudged it through José Pinto’s legs. The pictures and jokes were circulating quickly, albeit not as quickly as Bale.
One depicted him as the Road Runner, Bartra the Wile E Coyote trailing in his wake. Another was a mock-up of a speeding ticket for Mr G Bale, Campeón de Copa, for overtaking recklessly, crossing a continuous white line. El País called him Usain Bolt, while Marca described it as the “run of a lifetime”.
“It was an incredible goal,” Clement said. “He was at least two to three metres off the field in front of the Barça dugout and from that point on you never think it’s going to end up with him putting the ball in the back of the net. It’s just an amazing goal and it shows what an incredible athlete he is. He has great technical ability but that shows what power and pace he has got. To produce that kind of run so late in the game, 84 minutes, is incredible.”
“I haven’t seen it back yet,” Bale admitted afterwards, but there will be time for that. It was not just the goal, either: Bale was involved constantly, playing wide on the left. He took six shots over the 90 minutes, scored one and was involved in making the other. He even had another goal disallowed. Asked if he thought the decision was the right one, he replied, seemingly still baffled: “I’m not sure, to be honest. But it’s in the past now.”
By the time he departed the Mestalla, it was gone 1am and Madrid were preparing to fly back to the capital, where thousands of fans were celebrating at the statue of the Goddess Cibeles. The squad arrived there past 4am.
“This is amazing,” Bale said. Outside, the team bus waited and fans chanted. “I’ve always watched Madrid and the reason I wanted to come here was to win all the trophies. But I haven’t really thought about [what this means]. I’m just trying to celebrate now, to enjoy the moment and hopefully in future years I’ll be able to look back on this as a great moment. I’ve heard a few things about the celebrations and I am looking forward to taking it all in.
“It feels amazing to win a first trophy here and hopefully there is a lot more to come. The most important thing is that we don’t get too carried away. Bayern Munich [Madrid’s opponents in the Champions League semi-final] are a great team. We’ll just take every game as it comes.”
It may sound ridiculous for a player who had just scored his 20th goal in all competitions and who also has 16 assists, but there was pressure and there were doubts. There was a strange sensation that the statistics did not tell the whole story, while injury and a late arrival that denied him a full pre-season had prevented him from having the continuity he wanted.
After the first clásico of the season the rabidly pro-Barcelona Catalan daily Sport ran a front page that gloated that Bale was a failure who had not justified his €100m fee. Neymar, it said, was a “crack” or superstar; Bale was a “catacrack”, a disaster. It looked stupid anyway; it looks stupider now. There were some small doubts in Madrid too but if before the game, one newspaper claimed that the “Prince of Wales” was seeking his crown, on Wednesday he wore it. The Prince met Spain’s king, Juan Carlos I.
This was a huge performance on the biggest stage that made a powerful case in his favour. This will always be Bale’s cup. In the sports daily AS, Luis Nieto wrote: “His price was indecent, he came to Madrid without a pre-season, we had to study medicine to understand the injuries, he can barely say ‘Buenos días’, and he only has one foot. But it’s an exceptional foot which moves at an unstoppable speed.
The word Bale must come from ‘bala’ [bullet]. He would not have been out of place in Chariots of Fire.” “I’m never too worried about what people say,” the Welshman said. “It is important for me to just concentrate on my game and put as little pressure on myself as I can. It was nice to have a good performance tonight.”
“That’s only his second final so that was a big game for him tonight. But he has great temperament. He keeps cool in the big games, he doesn’t show nerves,” Clement said.
“Internally, we never had any doubts. The club never had any doubts. They paid a big price for him of course but that’s because he’s such a good player. He has shown that in many games this year and to show that on a big night like this, is good for him. We’re very pleased for him.”
The responsibility had been greater still because Madrid were without Cristiano Ronaldo, who may yet not make the first leg against Bayern Munich. But Bale has scored nine times now without Ronaldo on the pitch and he has performed well on the left in his absence.
So maybe the Ballon d’Or winner won’t even get back into the team, someone joked. “Good one,” Bale shot back. With that he left the stadium and boarded the bus.
In his hand was a replica of the Copa del Rey.
Bale’s life and career
Born: 16 July, 1989 in Cardiff
Family: Father Gareth Frank Bale is a retired school caretaker and mother Debbie worked in a solicitors’ office
School life: Gareth played rugby, cricket, hockey and football - and also excelled in athletics
Girlfriend: Lives in Spain with his long-time girlfriend, Emma Rhys-Jones. Their first child, Alba Violet, was born in 2012
Career: 45 appearances (five goals) for Southampton; 204 appearances (55) for Tottenham; 39 Real Madrid appearances (20); 44 appearances for Wales (12)
Real’s 11th star buyco
July 2000: Luis Figo cost £37m
July 2001: Zinedine Zidane £45m
Sept 2002: Ronaldo £28m
June 2003: David Beckham£24.5m
Aug 2004: Michael Owen £8m
June 2009: Kaka £56m
July 2009: Cristiano Ronaldo £80m
July 2009: Karim Benzema £35m
July 2010: Mesut Ozil £12.5m
Aug 2012: Luka Modric £35m
Sept 2013: Gareth Bale £85.3m