'The other Bale' out to make mark on world stage

Posted by Mark Lomas

Christopher BaleOther / Auckland FCChristopher Bale may not reach the heights of Gareth, but he'll do something the Real Madrid man has yet to.

Having a name made famous by someone else can be a little challenging. When a spotty-faced trick pony named Cristiano Ronaldo first strutted onto the Old Trafford pitch in 2003, Manchester United fans sang that there was “only one Ronaldo,” a jibe in jest at Real Madrid’s O Fenomeno. While United’s Portuguese prodigy possessed unquestionable raw talent, few of those fans genuinely believed he could even come close to matching the stature of the Brazilian World Cup winner.

For several years, Cristiano was "the other Ronaldo," but a determination to reach the top and place his own name in the pantheon of the greats saw a remarkable transformation from stepover-happy teenager to ruthless scoring sensation. In November 2011, after just more than two seasons at Real Madrid, Cristiano surpassed Ronaldo’s 104-goal haul for the club despite having played 85 fewer games. The Portuguese is now the undisputed king of the Bernabeu, though he is still being judged against his predecessor -- with Jose Mourinho this summer labeling the Brazilian the “real Ronaldo.”

The comparisons aren’t quite as high-profile for Christopher Bale. He may be a midfielder from south Wales, but this Bale is miles from the Gareth of Tottenham and now Real Madrid fame. Actually, it’s more like 12,190 miles; Chris plies his trade with Auckland City in New Zealand, having moved from his native Newport eight years ago.

He may not play in a team of galacticos but Chris has enjoyed phenomenal success in Oceania, winning multiple domestic league titles and tasting OFC continental glory four times. On Wednesday, he is set to play in his fourth FIFA Club World Cup, a feat that no Real Madrid player, or even much-decorated compatriot Ryan Giggs can match.

A recognisable surname has drawn the attention of the media assembled in Morocco, where Bale -- a midfielder who is more about box-to-box action than fleet-footed forays down the left wing -- and his Auckland teammates have been preparing for their Club World Cup playoff against Raja Casablanca. This hype is all new to the Welshman, who recalls that before Gareth’s world record move to Madrid, it was a very different Bale who inspired the occasional headline.

“The comparisons have never really come up too often,” Chris Bale told ESPN. “The last year or so, really since he’s moved to Real Madrid, the Gareth Bale scenarios and questions have got a little bit more frequent. The only time my surname was mentioned before that was in relation to Christian Bale [the actor of Batman fame]. I think there was once a story that described me as the Batman of South Wales or something like that, which was pretty funny.

“Surprisingly, there’s hasn’t been that much mickey-taking from my teammates yet, though with all these stories around the Club World Cup they might crank it up. Gareth’s a great player obviously, and it’s brilliant to see a Welshman doing so well for such a big club. But he’s no relation to me as far as I’m aware -- although Bale isn’t actually a common Welsh name, so who knows!”

The Club World Cup continues to get a pretty bad rap from the football world, but for players like Chris Bale it is an incredible opportunity. Auckland are a part-time team and Bale, who works as a territory manager for a beverage company, is among those who balances a full-time job with football. Having played for local non-league side Newport County and narrowly missed out on a contract with Swansea, Bale was unable to ever fulfill his dream of playing in the English football league. But after a family move to New Zealand, he was given a new lease of football life. Now, he can say he is a continental champion and will have played in the same tournament as Bayern Munich.

“It’s amazing to think about the experiences I’ve had since moving New Zealand,” Bale said. “Eight years ago I had three or four reserve games for Swansea and was told that, at the age of 22, I was too old to come on board. Then I had a phone call from Kenny Jackett, Swansea’s manager at the time, who said he was ready to offer me a short-term contract. Unfortunately, that was the last I ever heard from him. Football in the UK is pretty cut-throat and I experienced it first-hand. I was gutted.

“Now I’ve played in the OFC Champions League and the Club World Cup. The first year I came to the Club World Cup, it was a real eye-opener. Playing in front of 33,000 people in the national stadium in Japan was something to take in. The nerves get the better of you. But coming back two or three times you get used to that, to playing in front of those crowds. We are part-time players and although we do train five or six times a week, it’s still evening training -- it’s great to come here and to feel like a professional footballer, the standard is another step up.”

Moroccan champions Raja Casablanca are the team standing between Auckland and a first place in the Club World Cup quarterfinals, where Mexican giants Monterrey wait. Bale’s first two appearances in the competition came while playing for Auckland’s biggest domestic rivals, Waitakere United, before he made the controversial cross-city switch 18 months ago. A major attraction was to play under Barcelona-born coach Ramon Tribulietx, who has succeeded in bringing his own brand of tiki-taka to New Zealand.

“The chance to play under Ramon was a big draw for me,” Bale explained. “Every footballer wants to get on the ball, especially at a young age. Unfortunately at times when you’re growing up and playing under different managers, direct football comes into play. Having played plenty of non-league football, there have been times when, as a midfielder, I’ve gone 10, 20 minutes without touching the ball -- just jogging back and forth up the field as it’s punted long. So to play under a manager who wants to play good football and to the middle of the park, it’s improved my game as well. I’m loving every minute of it at the moment.”

Tribulietx’s expansive style is very much down to his Catalan roots, with Johan Cruyff unsurprisingly the man whose coaching blueprint he looks to copy. The Auckland manager tells ESPN: “I came from Barcelona, that’s the way I played the game and that’s the way I’ve always understood the game. That is the way I’m trying to get our team to play. Football is moving that way. You can see the German teams, too, playing in a similar way but with slightly different characteristics. I think it’s the way to go. I used to go and watch Barcelona and we used to have an English coach in the 1980s and a more English style. Then Johan Cruyff came to change the philosophy. I’ve always been a small, technical player who wanted the ball into feet so this is how I’ve always seen the game. I thought that if I was to be a coach, I always wanted to play in that way.”

Despite Tribulietx’s desire for attractive football, recent history is not on Auckland’s side at the Club World Cup. Back in 2009 they made it into the quarterfinals by beating UAE champs Al-Ahli but in the past two years they have been undone by J-League winners Kashiwa Reysol and Sanfrecce Hiroshima. A 2-0 defeat in 2011 and a 1-0 defeat last year indicates improvement, and after becoming the first club to win the OFC Champions League three times -- sweetly beating rivals Waitakere in the final -- Bale believes a third straight appearance at the Club World Cup could bring the part-timers an elusive place in the last eight again.

“In the camp it doesn’t feel like we’re fighting a losing battle,” Bale said. “It sounds clichéd but we are not just here to make up the numbers. This year especially, after what’s happened before, there is a belief around here that we can go on and win this game. It’s not just about holding out, or keeping the score down. We want to win.

“We’re ready to play in Morocco, in a different environment, in a different atmosphere. Nothing surprises us anymore. In the OFC Champions League, you go to some of the islands and don’t know what to expect sometimes. There have been a few real eye-openers. We played in the Solomon Islands just after they’d emerged from a civil war -- I’ve never see people living in such bad conditions and doubt if we will again. It was a difficult setting, it was an unnerving place to be. This is a team that is ready for anything.”


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