Summer of Soccer: Gareth Bale, a Wale of a Player

Gareth Bale and his upstart nation hope to make a statement at Euro 2016

Unlike American sports, international soccer rarely features trades. Instead, the rights to players are simply bought and sold. Going by the amount of money his team paid for him, the most valuable player in the world isn't Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo.

It's Gareth Bale.

In January it was revealed that the star cost Real Madrid a staggering $114 million when he moved from Tottenham Hotspur of the English Premier League in 2013. That's $5 million more than Ronaldo's price tag four years earlier — a fact that reportedly irked Ronaldo.

Of course, Real is one of the biggest teams in the world, and Bale is surrounded by some of the best players on the planet. If you want a better idea of how valuable he truly is to a team, look at what he's done with Wales.

The tiny country of barely three million people was ranked 117th in the world five years ago. Thanks largely to the play and leadership of the 26-year-old Bale, Wales was as high as eighth last October. And this month the Dragons will compete in the 2016 European Championship, their first major competition since the 1958 World Cup.

How does Bale do it? He's a crafty passer and has a dangerous shot, but his greatest asset is easily his speed. Two years ago, a study clocked him at 23 miles per hour — with the ball at his feet! That made him the fastest player in the world.

Despite those gifts, it hasn't always been easy for Bale. After he joined Spurs in 2007 as an 18-year-old, the team incredibly failed to win any of the first 24 games he played. (By the time he left, he was the leading scorer on a squad that finished fifth in the Premier League.)

And his early time in Madrid was bumpy as well. He and Ronaldo had trouble meshing on the field. The Spanish press sided with Ronaldo (who is from neighboring Portugal) portraying Bale as an immature troublemaker. But the two have grown into a formidable partnership.

Now Bale will try to work some magic for his homeland, starting this summer. "I'm really excited to go [to Euro 2016]," he said. "It's the first time that we've been there in a long, long time and we're going out there to try to win each game and see where it takes us."

Photo: Nick Potts/PA Wire/AP

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