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Talent hidden in plain sight

The year was 2009 and it was one of those moments that left the Match of the Day producers (and licence fee- payers) wishing it had not gone out live.

Totenham's Gareth Bale has gone from hex factor to X factor Photograph: Getty
Totenham's Gareth Bale has gone from hex factor to X factor Photograph: Getty

Following a poor performance by Tottenham Hotspur, one of the studio pundits looked straight at the camera and blurted out: "You know, Spurs still haven't won when Leighton Baines has been on the pitch."

It was inanity of the highest order. First and foremost, of course, because Baines doesn't play for Tottenham and never has. The pundit in question meant to say Gareth Bale, of course, and simply mis-spoke.

You can see why. Leighton is an unusual name, Gareth is a Welsh name, Bale and Baines both begin with the letter "B", both are left-footed and they both play for clubs in the Premier League. Heck, he who is without sin and all that.

What was curious, though, was why the Bale stat was brought up in the first place. It's true. Bale wasn't part of a Tottenham side that won a league game for the first 28 months he was at the club – a run that stretched to 24 games.

But so what? Was the implication that he was some kind of bad- luck charm, cursed to never taste victory? Or was it that he was just such an awful player that no team could afford to have him in their side and hope to win?

It's a tale worth telling because it rather underscores how the mainstream media's obsession with results and inability to spot talent and project future achievement treated Bale as some kind of punchline to a joke during his first few seasons in the top flight.

And yet, it didn't take a genius to figure out that Bale – even if you had never seen him play (and those who were treating him like some kind of Welsh turd had seen him play) – must have had something about him.

After all, Bale made his professional debut for Southampton at 16. At 17 he made his international debut for Wales and was named the Football League's Young Player of the Year.

A few months short of his 18th birthday he moved to Tottenham for £5 million rising to £9.5m based on results and appearances. (Southampton and Spurs later reached a settlement fixing his fee at £7m).

At the time he was being mocked as some feckless voodoo doll; he had barely turned 20. Now, of course, it's all changed. At 24, he is hailed by many as "Britain's Greatest Footballer".

Is he? Personally, I think you could still make a strong case for Wayne Rooney, but it's a fair enough opinion. What's curious, though, is that with Bale, it's as much about "eye-test" greatness as it is about stuff you can measure statistically, like results.

Sure, Bale has 17 goals in all competitions this season, and Spurs are fourth in the Premier League and through to the last 32 of the Europa League.

Yet they also exited both domestic cups early, despite manager Andre Villas-Boas describing them as a "priority". It's fair to wonder then how much worse the club would be without Bale.

And if you conclude that, looking at the odds, they would be no lower than sixth then maybe you have to concede that what is exciting about Bale is what is still to come and how good he looks doing what he does.

It's not purely an aesthetic argument, though the two go hand in hand. Cristiano Ronaldo wowed everyone on his Premier League debut not just because of what he did – some stepovers, a cross, a few dribbles – but because of how effortless he made it look. Bale isn't much different.

He strikes the ball as cleanly and as accurately as anyone English football has seen since, well, Ronaldo himself. In full flight, he is not just exceptionally fast, he's also graceful and that's important because grace implies control. Certainly more so than, say, Rooney, whose pounding gait suggests willpower and desperation.

Bale's combination of size, athleticism, technique and elegance is extremely rare and it hints at untold possibility. To future levels he can ascend to, perhaps as high as the spheres Ronaldo and Lionel Messi inhabit.

The irony though is that the very qualities that lead us to believe he can reach those heights – or indeed that he is already there – were already on display years ago, when he was derided as an injury-prone evil eye. He didn't suddenly become fast or graceful or skilful or, indeed, tall. Yet so many failed to spot it.

They're putting on a brave face in Milan. Barcelona visit the San Siro in the Champions League on Tuesday and, while the Rossoneri concede they are not the favorites, there's a "heck-you-never-know" vibe emanating from the camp.

Mario Balotelli's arrival has given everyone a lift. After years of being seen as a team of old folk, Milan are now young and energetic. And, besides, last season they faced Barca four times and – while they drew twice and lost twice – these were all close, hard-fought games.

That may be wishful thinking. Nothing is beyond the gods of football, but it's worth remembering a few things. Balotelli is cup-tied and won't be on the pitch. Milan may be younger, but it will still be Christian Zapata and Philippe Mexes trying to contain Messi, which is a bit like trying to outrace a McLaren with a pair of rusty refrigerators.

And while Milan didn't embarrass themselves against Barca last season by any stretch, they did have guys like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva (as well as that rarest of sights: a fit Pato) playing for them. Unlike now.

Barca die-hards and Johan Cruyff loyalists are still aching for a measure of revenge for the night that the legendary Dutchman and his philosophy were thoroughly humiliated: May 18, 1994, in Athens, when Fabio Capello's injury-depleted Rossoneri pounded them 4-0 in the Champions League final.

Since then, of course, the Barca method has been thoroughly vindicated by Cruyff's heirs. But don't bet against them exacting a further dose of revenge, either on Wednesday night or in the return leg.

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