Bale unveiled at last

Posted by Dermot Ledwith

MADRID -- The first Monday of September is always a strange day in Madrid. The city that traditionally empties in August fills up again with tanned locals discussing summer exploits and a "new season" feel is palpable; it is the unofficial New Year.

Monday was no exception, but it was a new season with the extra excitement of the arrival of perhaps the world's most expensive ever footballer, depending on where you choose to read your information.

Tottenham insist it is a world-record £86 million (€100 million) fee, while Madrid go for a more sedate €91million, perhaps so as not to upset Cristiano Ronaldo, who holds/held that record at €96 million.

Whatever the cost, Gareth Bale arrived in the Spanish capital on the day former "galactico" Kaka confirmed his return to Milan.

Kaka cost €65 million in the summer of 2009, when Florentino Perez unleashed an unprecedented spending spree to also bring in Ronaldo, Xabi Alonso and Karim Benzema. Then, like now, the club opened the gates of the Santiago Bernabeu to allow fans in to welcome the new arrivals, accompanied by a huge media scrum.

The Bale deal was announced late on Sunday night. He was unveiled at 1 p.m. local time, in front of a crowd of 20,000 that was largely made up of youngsters on their school holidays, fanatics, the curious and the plain bored.

The lower sections of the huge bowl began to fill up an hour early and the young voices warmed up with chants of Iker, in support for their estranged goalkeeping hero Casillas, before moving on to a repertoire that included Mexican waves, a message not to sell Mesut Ozil and insults to the old enemy in Barcelona.

One fan's banner read "Bale, the man of the decima," alluding to his new club's annual search for its 10th Champions League title, 11 years after its ninth.

Outside, the unofficial merchandise stalls were doing a brisk trade in Bale scarves adorned with an unconvincing photo-shopped image of him appearing to strike an action pose in a Real shirt.

While those in attendance were not the usual profile of Real Madrid match-goer, most did wear replica shirts with the names of their heroes, Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos and Casillas; and the club shop rolled out the first ones with Bale on the back.

That is not to say that Madridistas have not done their homework on the player. Fed on a summer-long promise of his imminent arrival, most are aware what Bale is capable of.

Office worker Jose Luis told me the Welshman "deserves such a welcome because of the long wait."

Madrid-born student Gabriel said he saw Bale "as the natural substitute for Ronaldo, whether it is in the next year or later on," and if Bale does perform, his six-year contract should ultimately see him as top dog at Madrid.

As the wait continued, the stadium scoreboard lit up with goals scored in the white of Tottenham, before a collection of photos showed him in the red of Wales and as an early teen in a Real Madrid shirt circa 1995.

After a two-hour morning medical in a clinic in La Moraleja, Madrid's well-heeled northern enclave most of his teammates already call home, Bale was then whisked the three kilometres down the city's main drag, the Paseo Castellana, to get his first view of his new home.

We knew this in the stadium as we were privy to these images on the scoreboard, as Real Madrid TV were now in his car, and then we saw him walk through the doors of the stadium for the first time.

Finally at 1:16 p.m., with fans still flowing through the turnstiles, he finally appeared suited and booted from the throng into the Presidential Box where Perez opened the ceremony.

Describing the new signing as the best player in the Premier League, Perez spoke of Bale's dream to wear the Real Madrid shirt, as the player heard his first words translated through headphones from a language that could fill his head for years to come.

Ten minutes later, the fans got what they had come for as he stood centre stage to utter a few phrases in English about how "amazing" it all was and talk of future "success." Even his parents got a huge cheer, before the traditional "Hala Madrid," his first words in Spanish to thank the fans and a photo with the "Presi."

Another 15-minute wait for the fans before he appeared on the pitch for the obligatory ball juggling and more than an hour later the press got their chance to question him.

Over 26 questions and 10 minutes he had kind words for Ronaldo, who he described as "the best player in the world," while revealing that he had already had a chat with Carlo Ancelotti about his role.

Bale admitted to nerves on such a day and explained his long-term interest in Spanish football and Real Madrid stretching back to his childhood. He also admitted he had been learning Spanish and how part of his adventure is to learn the language and culture of his new home.

With an international break now coming up, the Welshman's current stay in Spain will be less than 24 hours, but he says he should be available for selection for the next league game at Villarreal. However, it is likely Ancelotti will offer him the treatment Neymar has had at Barca and ease him into his new surroundings; he will be given some time, at least, by fans and press alike.

The long-term objective has to be to hit the heights of Ronaldo and avoid the lows of Kaka. The coming months will be a challenge, but ultimately it will be his ability to bring the much desired decima to Madrid on which his La Liga adventure will be measured.

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