Real Madrid's Gareth Bale is Britain's forgotten superstar

Gareth Bale won his second Champions League title with Real Madrid on Saturday. Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

The tepid reaction in the aftermath of Real Madrid's Champions League semifinal win over Manchester City about summed up Gareth Bale's time in the Spanish capital.

Bale had played a key role in knocking England's last remaining representative out of Europe's premier competition, as he burst down City's left flank and rifled in a shot off Manchester City's Fernando at the Bernabeu. It proved to be the decisive goal of the tie.

The 26-year-old wheeled away with his arm aloft in celebration and his tongue sticking out, and he drank in the adulation of the Madridistas, who, it is fair to say, have not been universal in their praise since the Welshman first pulled on a Madrid shirt.

Back home, it was almost as if no one cared. What should have been Bale's crowning moment in the eyes of the British public and media -- dealing a knockout blow to English Champions League hopes -- was almost brushed aside. Bale got barely any credit. It was an own goal. He was trying to cross it. Vincent Kompany had already limped off injured. City's minds were already on next season, when Pep Guardiola will take over, with Manuel Pellegrini a lame-duck manager who could no longer inspire his players.

But there is a reason Bale has been recognised as the highest-ranked British sports star at No.12 on ESPN's World Fame 100, above even Wayne Rooney, former world No.1 golfer Rory McIlroy, two-time Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton and former Wimbledon champion Andy Murray.

Madrid went on to win La Undecima -- their 11th European Cup -- on Saturday, and Bale his second Champions League title in three years since he moved from Tottenham for a world-record £86 million transfer fee. He is hungry for more.

"That's why I came to the biggest club in the world -- to win Champions Leagues," he said postmatch. "To win it is very difficult. To do it twice in three years is an amazing feat and we just have to try and build on this now."

The Welshman contributed an assist for Sergio Ramos' opening goal in the final at the San Siro, and shook off a bout of cramp in extra time to score a penalty in the shootout before Juanfran's crucial miss for Atletico.

"I thought I was going to be nervous when I stepped up but I wasn't at all," he added. "It was only after when I got to the halfway line, I was like, 'Oh my god'."

There have been a fair few British footballers who tried their hands abroad, but they are usually of a lower standard -- think Joey Barton at Marseille, Micah Richards at Fiorentina -- and they usually come back with their tails between their legs. Others leave Britain for big paydays in their twilight years, such as former Chelsea star Frank Lampard (ranked No. 62 on ESPN's World Fame 100) and former Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard, with both seeing out their careers in Major League Soccer.

There has always been a strange reluctance among elite British footballers to ply their trade abroad while in their prime. Those who do are the exception, not the norm. David Beckham was the most recent British superstar to leave England for another top European league. He left Manchester United to sign for Madrid in a £24.5 million move in June 2003. Manchester United and England captain Rooney has previously been linked with Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain. If he leaves Old Trafford now, it will be with his powers far below their peak, just like Lampard and Gerrard.

British managers also seem hesitant to test themselves abroad. David Moyes was criticised for living out of a San Sebastian hotel room during his unsuccessful stint in charge at Real Sociedad. The former United boss never got to grips with the language, nor did Gary Neville during his ill-fated spell at Valencia, and that partly cost them their jobs.

"I am enjoying my football and feeling more and more comfortable in Madrid." Gareth Bale

Real's "hala Madrid!" motto was all Bale could sheepishly utter upon his Bernabeu unveiling in August 2013. But after two years of lessons, the Welshman gave his first full interview in Spanish in August, and he now sports the continental top-knot hairstyle to match. Not only is Bale the sole British footballer involved at a top level club outside of Britain, but he has also attempted to ingrain himself in the culture, and for that he should be applauded.

Many thought Bale's Spanish adventure would be brief. His contribution at the Bernabeu has been almost quietly ignored, not least by his club's own supporters, and a return to the Premier League with United is touted every transfer window.

"The Madrid fans can be relaxed. I still have three years left here on my contract and I am enjoying my football and feeling more and more comfortable in Madrid," he said before the final.

Scoring a crucial extra-time goal in the 2014 Champions League final to help end Madrid's obsessive, 12-year quest for La Decima -- their 10th European Cup -- should have earned him a place in Madridista hearts for life. But less than 12 months later, he was being abused by furious supporters as he drove away from the Santiago Bernabeu car park after the semifinal exit to Juventus, in which he missed a host of chances.

"What doesn't kill me makes me stronger, and I'll learn from this season and take it on," Bale told Sky Sports after the match.

His contribution in Europe aside, Bale rebounded by contributing 19 goals and 10 assists in 23 La Liga games this season. Such form would be considered prolific in the Premier League, in which Bale scored 21 goals to help secure Tottenham a record points total in the 2012-13 season and earn the PFA Player of the Year award and his transfer to Madrid.

Of course, Bale is used to carrying teams on his own. He drove Wales toward what will be their first major international tournament in 58 years at Euro 2016 almost single-handedly, as he scored nine of 11 goals, added two assists and directly won 11 points, more than any other player in Euro 2016 qualifying.

But Bale's La Liga stats will always be dwarfed by those of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, and now Luis Suarez has thrown his hat into that ring by scoring 40 goals to claim the Pichichi crown above both men this season. As long as Ronaldo is at the Bernabeu, Bale knows he will play second fiddle -- of course, it was the Portuguese who stepped up to convert the decisive fifth penalty at the San Siro on Saturday.

Perhaps Bale's selflessness contributes to his lack of recognition in Britain. The Welshman's exact transfer fee was only recently confirmed in leaked documents as exceeding the £80 million Real Madrid paid United for Ronaldo in 2009. The deal was reported to have upset Ronaldo, amid suggestions that Bale had been signed as his future replacement. But Bale told The Times last month that he has "never had a problem" with his star teammate, who in the past appeared to show frustration with Bale on the pitch.

"You definitely have to have teamwork," Bale said. "No one can ever do anything on their own. But you need a little bit of selfishness because that's what you need as a front man. Whoever scores the goals, we're happy. We just want to win trophies."

He also did not moan when Rafa Benitez, who tried to make Bale the focal point of the Madrid side earlier this season, was sacked after just 25 games.

The Spaniard's successor, Zinedine Zidane, is certainly thankful for Bale's contribution. Zidane labelled Bale "phenomenal" after a two-goal display in a 3-2 win at Rayo Vallecano that kept Madrid in the title race.

Bale's status as British football's one true world-class superstar should be undoubted after a second huge contribution to a Champions League title. Next season's final offers even more incentive for him, being played in his home city at Cardiff's Principality Stadium.

"Obviously I know it's in Cardiff," he said after Real's triumph at the weekend. "I would love to play there. I have already played the Super Cup at the Cardiff City Stadium [in 2014], which was an amazing experience, so it would be even better if we managed to get to the Champions League final there."