Before the pandemic screeched global travel to a halt, Gareth Bale had developed something of a summer ritual. For anywhere from two to four weeks, the then-Real Madrid star would bring his family to Los Angeles and soak in all the city had to offer. One year they might rent a house in Bel Air, and the next it could be Beverly Hills. His kids loved going to Disneyland, Bale played the area's nicest golf courses and, inevitably, he and his wife discussed their future.
"We always said we would love to try and live in L.A. at one time," Bale told ESPN this week.
For someone of his extensive wealth, it was an easily obtainable dream. It was just a matter of when. As in, before or after his playing career was over?
It was a question Bale grappled with long before he entered discussions with LAFC last month, eventually signing a one-year contract to join the team with the best record in Major League Soccer. Over the course of roughly the past five years, Bale has had intermittent conversations with his agent, Joshua Barnett of CAA Stellar, about the possibility of an MLS move. Each time, while under contract with Madrid on some of the highest wages of any athlete globally, the timing wasn't right. If he was to get to the United States, a free transfer was always going to be the most likely path.
That's why when the subject was broached again in March, it felt more real. His contract with Madrid was up at the end of the season, giving him the option to choose his next club.
"We wanted to wait until after World Cup qualifying and the [club] season was done and then take a fresh look at what opportunities were on the table," said Patrick McCabe, CAA Stellar's managing director for North America.
LAFC wasn't the only MLS team that figured to be a possible landing spot, but its location provided an outsized factor, and the more Bale researched what the 5-year-old club was building, the more intrigued he became. After Wales qualified for the World Cup on June 5 -- its first berth in the tournament since 1958 -- McCabe had the green light to gauge LAFC general manager John Thorrington's interest about the possibility of bringing the Welsh star to Southern California.
Before that happened, however, Thorrington had already been pondering the what-if.
"I was watching the [Wales-Ukraine qualifying] match, and I just had a sense -- just more of curiosity," Thorrington said. "Once they qualified, the thoughts crossed on, 'What is Gareth gonna do?' He's out of contract. What's he gonna do to prepare for the World Cup? And so the thought was in my head, and then when I got the text from Patrick to ask if we could talk about it, I knew what he wanted. He wasn't calling me to ask my advice as to what Gareth should do."
Almost exactly a month later, Bale, 32, arrived at Banc of California Stadium for the first time Friday to see his new team beat the rival LA Galaxy 3-2 and begin his American adventure. The sold-out crowd of 22,000 is modest compared to the attendances boasted by many of the stadiums he's played in across Europe, but he was struck by how atmosphere made the match feel like more of an event, and was encouraged by how he was received by the fans.
"People enjoy watching their football. Everybody wants to win, but it feels like a nice environment to be in, and it's not as toxic as maybe others," said Bale, who had a famously turbulent relationship with the fans and media in Madrid. "The experience on the pitch the other day was an amazing reception, and hopefully I can give them some goals to cheer about and try to enjoy my time here and try and connect with the fans as best we can so we'll all have a good time."
When Bale arrived at Real Madrid in 2013 from Tottenham Hotspur, he did so carrying expectations set by his then-world-record transfer fee. Carrying the title of World's Most Expensive Footballer necessitated that he clear a high bar to earn praise, and when varying factors -- injury or otherwise -- made that difficult, the criticism came quickly and in heavy doses.
In the United States, that dynamic he faced is tough to genuinely understand. In his nine-year association with Real Madrid, the club won the Champions League five times. He finished with 19 trophies and contributed numerous individual moments of brilliance, including a stunning overhead kick against Liverpool that served as the match winner in the 2018 Champions League final. In 258 official games with the club, he scored 106 goals with 67 assists across all competitions.
That type of individual production -- despite various injury layoffs -- paired with unmatched European team success should have been a recipe for unadulterated admiration. It wasn't. And when Bale was photographed smiling behind a banner that read "Wales. Golf. Madrid. In that order" after Wales qualified for the 2020 Euros in November 2019, it further disqualified Bale, fair or not, from being remembered primarily for his on-field achievements in the hearts of many Madridistas.
In Los Angeles and at LAFC, Bale thinks he's found a home where he can find joy in the game.
"I think just being at a club that is exciting is a happy place to be," he said. "It's a good project and one that I feel like I could enjoy my football. Obviously, a lot of factors came into it, but everything seemed to really fit over here."
During his time spent vacationing in the Los Angeles area, Bale couldn't help but notice how much more anonymously he could exist. In a hat and sunglasses -- and even without those items -- there's a good chance he can walk down most streets in town without being recognized. For someone who has lived under such an intense microscope for so long, it's a welcomed change of pace.
"It is nicer to be a bit more unrecognized," he said. "Obviously, soccer is not the main sport in America. There's a lot of sports, there's a lot of stars. So maybe people are used to seeing [stars] and don't react so much. For sure, it is nice to be able to walk down the street a little bit more freely, which I guess maybe plays a little part. But the main reason I came was to try and enjoy my football, to try and win trophies for this team and to try and enjoy myself."
That anonymity won't always be there. While making the rounds after arriving on Friday following his visa appointment in Wales the previous day, he was recognized all across town: valet drivers, hotel employees and by a fellow lunch patron at e. baldi Ristorante in Beverly Hills. On his way out of the restaurant, Gavin Rossdale, the lead singer for the British rock band Bush, stopped by to say hello.
"Hey Gareth, welcome to L.A., man," he said. "Great to have you, looking forward to seeing you play."
Bale is not the first European star to make his way to Southern California, nor is he the first to arrive directly from Real Madrid. Those distinctions belong to David Beckham, whose five-year contract with the Galaxy signed in 2007 included a clause that enabled him to buy an MLS franchise for $25 million at the end of his playing career. That franchise, Inter Miami CF, debuted in 2020 -- two years after LAFC entered the league -- and up until last month held what MLS refers to as "discovery rights" on Bale.
Discovery rights are designed to keep MLS clubs, all of which are owned by the league, from bidding against one another. The idea that Inter Miami "discovered" one of the sport's biggest stars is a special brand of MLS comedy, but in this case the club also had genuine initial interest in signing Bale, sources said. After it was determined that move wouldn't happen, LAFC was free to negotiate in earnest with Bale, and later shipped $75,000 in 2023 general allocation money to Beckham's club for Bale's rights within the league.
Perhaps the most eye-opening part of Bale's contract with LAFC is its initial structure. In MLS, each club is allotted three Designated Player slots that count only fractionally against the salary cap. It's assumed that a player of Bale's quality would require one of those roster spots, but that's not what happened. As was the case when LAFC signed former Juventus and Italy center-back Giorgio Chiellini just weeks prior, Bale was signed using targeted allocation money - meaning neither player can make more than $1.6 million a year. LAFC also hold an 18-month option on Bale, which would convert him into a DP next summer, sources confirmed.
For Bale, the justification was easy. He wanted to be in Los Angeles, money is not the primary motivator in the wake of his lucrative time in Spain, and if he plays at a high level, there is a clear path back to a larger payday.
Not everyone found that so easy to believe.
In an interview published in the print version of the German soccer magazine Kicker, Philadelphia Union sporting director Ernst Tanner indicated, through a translation from German, that "it takes a lot of good faith" to believe Bale are Chiellini are TAM players, limited to earning $1.6 million a season. Multiple parts of the printed interview gave the impression Tanner was skeptical of how LAFC was able to pull off both acquisitions.
Asked to provide additional context to what was printed, Tanner told ESPN in a statement: "Several parts of the various quotes were not in response to the question that is printed and was not represented in the manner I intended. I said in the interview, and will reiterate again, that I believe everything was done in compliance."
This comes a year after MLS hit Inter Miami with sanctions after determining the club skirted league rules by underreporting the salaries of five players, including Blaise Matuidi and Andres Reyes, who should have been categorized as Designated Players. The execution of Bale's contract went through the proper process of due diligence and compliance, according to a league spokesperson, and LAFC provided a written certification that all money negotiated in the contract was accounted for.
"If there's anybody that knows me and anybody who knows our owners, anybody who knows these players, anybody who knows these representatives, the accusation or, at best, the implication is not something we'll take lightly," Thorrington said.
After LAFC learned of Bale's interest, there was a shared sense of enthusiasm and excitement by those in the know. It wasn't unusual for the club to discuss the possibility -- and even communicate -- with high-profile global stars, but this time it felt different, Thorrington said.
"I think there was a is-this-too-good-to-be-true sentiment running through our organization that we didn't want to get ahead of ourselves and set up lofty expectations that led to disappointment," he said. "But I got a very positive feeling from each and every conversation with Gareth's representatives. And then more importantly from Gareth himself."
As part of the process, Bale had multiple conversations with LAFC first-year coach Steve Cherundolo on Zoom. They discussed Bale's preferences, how Cherundolo envisioned using him, and they generally got to understand each other.
"We had very similar thoughts, and everything just really seemed to fit really well," Bale said. "I think that's why it was quite an easy decision to make. Now, I'm very excited to get started."
LAFC's attack already features two DP wingers -- Carlos Vela and Brian Rodriguez -- and striker Cristian Arango has been one of the most prolific goal scorers in the league since arriving midway through the 2021 season with 21 goals in 36 matches. It's expected that Bale will be used, at times, in any of the three attacking positions in LAFC's 4-3-3 formation.
Bale trained with the team for the first time Monday and is available for selection Sunday when LAFC visit Nashville SC (8:30 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+). Cherundolo indicated he planned to involve Bale quickly, but he has yet to confirm whether a debut is guaranteed for this weekend.
When he does make his bow, it will serve as the realization of the type of moment the club has envisioned since its foundation. For a star of Bale's stature to choose LAFC -- and to choose MLS -- as the place to prepare for the World Cup adds a layer of credibility in a way that's hard to otherwise generate.
"You have a guy who just qualified for his country's first World Cup in however many decades who felt the right preparation and competitive environment for him to prepare for that historic moment is MLS," Thorrington said. "I just think that's something that we were always hoping would be said at this league, but now that it's actually happening, I think it's just testament to certainly what everybody that has helped build LAFC has accomplished, but also think a lot of credit is due to everybody at the league."