Settled Bale eyes more Madrid glory
Gareth Bale says with a grin that he almost had too much time to think as he waited for the ball to come down after it had spun up off Atletico Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois' outstretched leg, five minutes into the second period of extra time in May's Champions League final.
"Time kinda stood still when the ball was floating in the air," Bale told ESPN FC in an exclusive interview on Tuesday. "All I remember is seeing the keeper save it and I kinda had to adjust my body and all I thought was to try and get this into the net whatever you do. Thankfully for me it went in."
Thankfully for Bale -- and for Real Madrid -- the ball did go in. And Los Blancos went on to easily beat an exhausted Atletico 4-1 in extra time, with further goals from Marcelo and a final penalty and shirtless celebration from Cristiano Ronaldo.
But Bale is honest enough to admit that for a long time -- after Iker Casillas' mistake and Diego Godin's opening goal for Atletico, and right up until Sergio Ramos' 93rd-minute headed equaliser -- it looked like Madrid's long Decima wait was going to continue.
"After the game there was a bit of everything, a bit of relief and happiness," he says. "Every kind of emotion comes out when you win a trophy, and to win it in those circumstances made it, I think, a bit more special. We showed a lot of character in that game, to keep going until literally the last whistle and we showed what a good team we are. Even if we do not play quite up to the standard we set, we keep fighting until the last whistle. Obviously the reason you come to Real Madrid, such a big club, is to win trophies and to win that in my first season was a dream. To win the biggest trophy of all of them was special, and something I will never forget."
Bale also scored in April's Copa del Rey final, the late winner as Barcelona were beaten 2-1, and finished his first year in Spain with 22 goals and 16 assists in total. But the campaign was not all plain sailing, with persistent injury concerns hampering his contribution through the autumn and winter, after he arrived at Madrid right as the 2014 summer transfer window shut.
The former Tottenham man admits that he has enjoyed this summer, when he has had a proper rest and full preseason training, was a big improvement on the nervous period 12 months ago as he waited for his 90 million-euro transfer to Madrid to finally go through.
"I obviously feel a lot physically stronger and more prepared now," he says. "This time last year I was still at home in my house in London. It is nice to not have that saga going on, to be just able to relax and concentrate purely on your football. I am already settled in here in my house, and the surrounding area. I feel a lot more comfortable now. I know the city a lot better -- I can actually find places without the sat nav now. I am still learning about the city, but I am enjoying it. It has been a good preseason and off to a good start winning the [UEFA] Super Cup [against Sevilla] and the first La Liga game [2-0 against Cordoba on Monday]. Now we are looking forward to the rest of the season."
Conspicuously left out of Bale's review of recent weeks was the Spanish Super Cup, where Atletico took advantage of a disjointed Madrid performance to gain some small revenge for Lisbon by winning 2-1 over the two legs. The 24-year-old does almost admit that Madrid's busy preseason schedule -- which included three games in three different U.S. cities, plus trips to Cardiff for the Supercup and a friendly against Fiorentina in Warsaw -- has been tiring work.
"In the last 10 days we have had four games," he says. "Preseason was very busy, with a lot of travelling, but it is the same for every club. We have had a lot of games since we came back from preseason as well, which is not usually normal, but playing for trophies is what we want to be doing, and winning them. It has been a busy start to the season, but we are looking forward to it."
Next up for Madrid is Thursday's Champions League draw, where the holders will be a top seed, but could again face a tricky group draw. Asked whether it would be good or bad to face an English team and players and stadiums he knew well -- with Manchester City or Liverpool as possibilities -- the Wales international deftly avoided the question.
"I would like to be able to choose, but the draw does not help me to do that," Bale said with another smile. "Whoever we get will be a difficult team. All we can do is give it our best. We know it is going to be difficult whoever we play, but we will try to win every game to win the group."
Madrid will play in Europe this season in a new dragon-themed black jersey, with renowned Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu also attending Tuesday's launch event.
Dragons have been seen on a few football jerseys in recent years -- Inter Milan, the Catalan national team -- and have always been featured on the Wales jersey. Bale said that this look was quite different, and claimed that he and his fellow players actually did pay attention to the gear they wore.
"It is not quite the dragon we wear on our national kit, but it is pretty cool and something you don't really ever see on a kit," he said. "This is nice -- as all the Real Madrid kits are, the new pink one is quite cool as well. To wear a dragon on your shirt is quite unique, and it looks very good I think."
Also wearing the Madrid jersey this year are this summer's incoming Galacticos in World Cup stars James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos. Bale said he would do his part in helping the new players settle in at the club, while admitting that -- like last year -- it could take time for coach Carlo Ancelotti to fit all his expensive pieces together.
“Last year we had a little bit of a slow start and then got into the rhythm of things.”
"The whole squad, the whole club always helps every new signing settle in," he said. "They were amazing for me last year, made me feel very welcome straight away, to feel straight at home. I think the same will happen with James and Toni. We have time to work on things in training, but obviously in games there are going to be things that we want to improve. Last year we had a little bit of a slow start and then got into the rhythm of things. We all really want to play, we are all looking forward to playing and we all want to play well. We are looking forward to playing together every game and to win every game we can."
It took a while for the ball to drop for Bale in his first year at Madrid, but the end results were pretty spectacular. Now properly settled in Spain, the Welsh dragon has his sights set on an even better second campaign.