It's difficult sometimes when a player has perfected the art of thrilling crowds in the way Gareth Bale has for Tottenham Hotspur because there is always that nagging sense that sooner or later one of the unflinching facts of football life will catch up with his audience. It is that a player with this devastating quality probably deserves to breathe in more rarefied air and, at some point, will be entitled to leave for new adventures.
Bale has not just been trying to catch and overhaul Robin van Persie as the outstanding performer in English football recently. He has also been accelerating towards the point when he has to weigh up his own ambitions against those of his club. It could be the most pivotal decision he ever makes and, if it is true that Real Madrid and Bayern Munich and possibly one or two others have him on their radar and enough bags of gold to make it happen, Tottenham's supporters should probably know from previous experience that they might just have to enjoy him while they can.
That is not a slight on a club that is pushing once again for Champions League qualification and acutely aware why so many of their competitors tend to regard the Europa League, with its clunky system and Thursday-night-Sunday-afternoon schedule, with something bordering on disdain.
Bale, all the same, is rapidly establishing him as a phenomenon of the modern game and though it is true, as Arsène Wenger says, that we can be too excitable on these shores and should hold off with the Cristiano Ronaldo comparisons, it is also firmly the case that he is the closest we have to the superstar of the Bernabéu. Bale, too, has that rare quality that means a sense of anticipation reverberates through a crowd whenever he has the ball. Something is expected of him every time.
At 23, the most exhilarating part is that his potential may not yet have fully flowered, but the sight of Bale running with tremendous acceleration and competitive courage to leave opposing defences in chaos is already the most exciting thing there is in English football. The two goals he scored against Lyon were the acts of someone who devises his own rules when it comes to striking the ball. The one against West Brom a couple of weeks ago was an exercise in raw power. At Norwich the lacerating sprint and finish from inside his own half was a combination of supreme balance and speed. That ability to score from any angle or distance takes extreme talent. They are a great player's goals.
Sooner or later, Bale might have to let someone else have a turn. For now, he could stock a West End bar with all the man-of-the-match champagne that has come his way since the turn of the year. Nobody else in Tottenham's colours has scored in the past four games. Bale has six, plus one more in the 2-1 win for Wales against Austria. In total, there have been 17 for his club this season. It is not an exact science, admittedly, but without his goals Spurs would be 10th. As it is, they are fourth and Bale has almost single-handedly drawn attention away from the fact that the people above him were eccentric enough, reckless even, to go into the season with only two orthodox strikers – and what that, in turn, possibly says about the true scale of their ambition.
The team's supporters could be heard recently chanting "you should have signed a striker", presumably for the benefit of the chairman, Daniel Levy, and they have a reasonable point given that Jermain Defoe is now injured while Emmanuel Adebayor has impeccably maintained his career record of initially playing with great vigour at all his clubs – usually for the first three months – then giving the impression that the moment the referee blows for kick-off is his least favourite time of the week.
It is a deception Spurs should have been aware of, but they did not recruit another striker last summer and their January efforts in this department amounted to a deadline-day move for Leandro Damião of Internacional, trying in a matter of hours to navigate a route through the Brazilian's part-ownership with Atlético Ibirama, set up a medical and arrange a share of the pot for the small army of agents hanging on his coat tails. Unsurprisingly, the deal disintegrated, but why wait until the last afternoon anyway? They might as well have set off, blindfolded and without a compass, on a hike through the Amazon.
A few months ago, interviewing Bale, he explained that it was Levy's ambition for the club that had persuaded him to sign a new contract. "He told me about his plans going forward and what he wanted to bring to Tottenham. It was exciting. We're going in the right direction. We've made some great signings. We've got a new training ground, we're planning a new stadium. It's all looking bright."
Yet he has also made no secret of his desire to play in a different country, to the point when he has apparently already asked some of the people around him whether they would still work on his behalf if he were abroad. He is on the top whack at Spurs but that is only £75,000 a week, if "only" is the correct word. Another club could double that in the blink of an eye and, while it is fine to argue that maybe he might be the one who breaks the trend and refuses to be seduced by the largest pay packet, back in the real world the bottom line is that wage structure is one of the reasons why Spurs are vulnerable to losing their more cherished stars.
Levy, to give him his due, did successfully repel Chelsea's advances for Luka Modric the summer before last. Yet Modric dedicated himself to getting a transfer and a year later left for Real Madrid. Martin Jol devised his entire team structure around Michael Carrick but the midfielder could not turn down Manchester United. Dimitar Berbatov was so desperate to make the same move he flew north before a fee had even been confirmed. At the top end of the Premier League, you will never find a supporter who likes to admit their club cannot keep their best players – just ask Arsenal, the club Tottenham measure themselves against the most – but the pattern at White Hart Lane is clear.
In Bale's case he has the option to continue being the hero of this team, particularly now André Villas-Boas has recognised that the Welshman could be more than just a highly effective and penetrative left-winger and given him the licence to roam inside and create havoc in other ways.
Alternatively, it is tempting to wonder what might have passed through Bale's mind if he watched Madrid take on United on Wednesday. Carrick and Modric were involved. Ryan Giggs, whose face used to adorn the posters on Bale's bedroom walls, was applauded on to the pitch with a reverence that told its own story about the Bernabéu's tastes. It was a night when the Champions League reminded us of its glamour and pizzazz and it would have rendered Spurs versus Lyon as little more than an afterthought until the goals from Bale that brought the latest wave of Ronaldo comparisons and had L'Equipe eulogising about "two masterstrokes".
Spurs may indeed qualify for the Champions League but Terry Venables was right when he said that, ultimately, Bale might be entitled to want more. A player of this refinement is accomplished enough to belong to a team with realistic aspirations of winning it, rather than just the odd season here and there of sightseeing.
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