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true great Gareth Bale's eagerness to do things is own way has gone against him on too many levels

Enigmatic Bale set to prove the doubters wrong again

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Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo celebrate.  (Photo by Helios de la Rubia/Real Madrid via Getty Images)

Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo celebrate. (Photo by Helios de la Rubia/Real Madrid via Getty Images)

Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo celebrate. (Photo by Helios de la Rubia/Real Madrid via Getty Images)

THERE was a time when Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale were being compared as equals.

Back in the summer of 2013, when Real Madrid shattered the transfer world record they set to lure Ronaldo from ­Manchester United to seal a deal to sign Bale from Tottenham, the new kid in town had visions of forming a fantasy dream team in partnership with Ronaldo.

Yet that was quickly banished as the king of the Bernabeu made it clear that he was not willing to give up his status as Real Madrid's star performer to the Welshman who had invaded his kingdom.

Ronaldo's discomfort at Bale's invasion into his territory was not helped by the new-boy's stunning winning goal against Barcelona in the Copa del Rey in his first season at the club.

Then came Bale's crucial goal in the Champions League final against Atletico Madrid to help the club secure a 10th win in Europe's elite competition, with Bale's legacy as a legend in Real Madrid's folklore seemingly assured.

Throw in his sensational overhead kick goal against Liverpool in the 2018 Champions League final and his haul of four Cha mpions League wins at Real Madrid and you should have a footballer worthy of a statue in his honour outside their soon-to-be rebuilt Bernabeu home.

Yet as Ronaldo and Bale strut their stuff in the Euro 2020 finals this summer, the former team-mates/rivals have seen their career paths move in very different directions.

In a week when the legendary Ronaldo claimed another record as he became the top scorer in European Championship finals history, Bale's career has followed a more conventional path.

Greatness has rarely been sustained on the levels Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have managed over the last 15 years, with Bale's glorious golden patch in the middle of his career now a distant memory after three years of inexplicable decline.

The brilliance this 31-year-old possesses has been seen in flashes for club and country over the last three or four years, but it has only been fleeting.

Instead, Bale has become something of an enigma on the world stage.

Brilliant goals, incredible bursts of magic and match-winning displays have become few and far between in recent years, with Bale's apparent eagerness to embrace the joke that he is more interested in playing golf than football these days evidence of his fading passion for the game.

Still only 31, there were strong suggestions that he was tempted to call time on his career once this summer's Euro 2020 finals come to an end.

Yet that notion was never likely to be acceptable to his agent Jonathan Barnett, with one year left on his extraordinary €600,000-a-week contract at Real Madrid.

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The player himself does not appear to have any great interest in rebuilding a reputation that has been tarnished in recent years and yet in the opinion of Ashley Williams (below), Bale deserves better.

Williams was Wales captain as he led his nation to the semi-finals of Euro 2016 and he suggests his former team-mate deserves to be recognised as one of the game's greats rather than a player who lost his passion for the game.

"I think Gareth is in conversation as one of the greatest British players ever," declares Williams, in an exclusive interview with the Sunday World.

"Just on the basis of what he has won at Real Madrid and his contribution to those successes in Champions League finals, scoring some vital goals, you have to say there are few who have achieved more.

"Maybe it has not gone as well for him over the last couple of years, but that is normal for most footballers, even players who have reached Gareth's level.

"Only Ronaldo and Messi have managed to reach that elite level and stay there year after year and what we have seen from Gareth is more normal for a player of his age.

"He has set the bar so high. He was doing something incredible every single week when he was in his final season at Tottenham, but that was never going to happen at this stage of his career.

"What he needed to do was find where he fitted in at Tottenham and by the end of it, I feel like he did that."

Castigated as an outsider who constantly refused to attend club functions with his team-mates and long-since dismissed as yesterday's man by Real Madrid fans, Bale's former Spurs team-mate Jermaine Jenas (below) is quick to offer up a feisty defence of this decorated performer.

"I remember speaking to Gaz at Spurs if we had a Christmas party and he would often say he would leave it," he recalls.

"No problem, no pressure. Maybe he enjoys playing golf and spending time with his family, but when did that become a crime?

"I got on really well with Gaz and one of the things I loved about him was that he was his own man. If we were going out as a squad, he would often opt-out and stay at home with his family, but I never had a problem with that.

"What we should be talking about is Bale's achievements rather than what others perceive he has done wrong. The Champions League final goals, the titles he brought to Real Madrid.

"In my opinion, the way the Real Madrid fans have treated Gareth is nothing short of a disgrace. He has won everything at Real Madrid. Their fans should be kissing his feet."

It would be the ultimate repost to his critics and maybe history will reflect more kindly on Bale than it may seem right now.

Maybe Bale's biggest crime was not his failure to attend team birthday parties or his eagerness to hit the golf course at every opportunity.

Instead, his error was probably trying to go head-to-head with Ronaldo in a contest that was almost impossible to win.

Greatness can be measured on several scales when one of sports all-time giants is being used as your gauge, a harsh verdict may well be inevitable.

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