LONDON (AP) — Just four years ago Gareth Bale was considered a jinx and a flop, and faced being offloaded on the cheap by Tottenham.
Failing to live up to expectations, the disillusioned gangly teenager endured more than 1,500 minutes on the pitch across 28 months before finally featuring on a winning side in the Premier League for Tottenham.
Fast forward to 2013 and the now-muscular, speedy 24-year-old Bale is one of European football's most potent attacking forces and the most sought-after asset in the summer transfer window. He could also be on the verge of becoming the world's most expensive footballer.
Real Madrid appears to be leading the chase for Bale, who would be emulating Cristiano Ronaldo and David Beckham in leaving the Premier League to become the Spanish club's latest Galactico. "Real Madrid's fans will be purring at the thought of having possibly him and Ronaldo in the same team," said former Tottenham player and manager Glenn Hoddle. "They can go back and challenge the world again."
To prize Bale away from north London, however, Madrid is likely to have to improve on the world-record fee of 93.9 million euros (then $131 million) it paid Manchester United for Ronaldo in 2009. British and Spanish media have reported that Madrid has offered 100 million euros for Bale, although neither Tottenham nor Madrid has publicly commented on the bid.
Although Tottenham's public posturing has seen a "not for sale" sign officially left dangling over Bale during the summer, it would be hard for the north London club to reject such a hefty wad of cash and retain a player agitating to join a team challenging for top titles.
Because, for all the mesmerizing footwork on the ball, eye-catching goals from free kicks and defense-splitting surges, Bale doesn't have a single winners' medal for show for his six years at Tottenham.
Bale, who has not commented on the speculation, reported to training as usual at Tottenham on Wednesday, and Hoddle is among the many current and former players hoping he will be staying with Spurs for one more season.
"I just sense that maybe he might go for the wrong reasons," said former Tottenham player and manager Glenn Hoddle. "If he wants to go just for football reasons I think it might be better in a year's time or maybe two years' time."
It was in May 2007 that Tottenham paid just 5 million pounds (then $8 million) to bring the 17-year-old Bale from Southampton, the south-coast club then playing in the second tier. Although he scored three times in his first four starts, a series of injuries stymied his progress and he went on that frustrating run, becoming a symbol of poor results until emerging as a substitute 84 minutes into his 25th Premier League game — a 5-0 rout of Burnley.
Since then, Bale has never looked back. Neither has Tottenham, which at one point was reported to have tried to use Bale as a make-weight in deals to bring in new players. After shaking off his substitute's role in January 2010, Bale began to consistently show the flair and pace that displaced left back Benoit Assou-Ekotto from the starting line-up.
And, as the attacking side of Bale's game began to flourish, then-manager Harry Reddknapp pushed Bale onto the left wing. Having helped to steer Tottenham into the Champions League for the first time in May 2010, Bale was rewarded with a lucrative new deal — the first of three successive annual contract upgrades.
Bale announced himself to the world with two dazzling displays against Champions League holder Inter Milan in the group stage in the 2010-11 season, including a hat trick at the San Siro. As Tottenham fought off interest from rival teams, Bale was named the 2011 player of the year in England by his footballing peers.
But Bale has begun to outgrow Tottenham, with the team failing to return to the Champions League despite his goal-scoring prowess and searing pace. His importance to the team was underscored last season by the fact his 21 leagues goals, many from being deployed in a more central position, helped win 22 points for Spurs, although they still finished a place outside of the top four.
With his national team Wales unlikely to qualify for a major tournament, it is at club level where Bale will have to make his mark like compatriot Ryan Giggs. "He is such an exciting player, but more than that, he has a good attitude as well," Giggs said recently. "He can go far in the game."
Named English football's player of the year by his fellow professionals and journalists last season, Bale appears to be preparing the groundwork for the enhanced fame that a move to Madrid would bring. Earlier this year, he filed an application to trademark his goal celebration, a heart-shaped hand gesture he dedicates to his long-time girlfriend, to use on merchandise.
But while Bale is the superstar at Tottenham, he could find himself in the shadow of Ronaldo in the Spanish capital if he didn't make an immediate impact. "When you go abroad the first four, five, six months could be difficult for him to regain that form," Hoddle said.