As a short and skinny nine-year-old, Gareth Bale used to play football just a 25-minute car ride from this year’s Champions League final venue in Cardiff.
At the time, Wales’ national ground — now known as the Principality Stadium — was in the process of being rebuilt and is now one of Europe’s largest and most impressive venues, with a capacity of 73,000.
Bale moved away to achieve his dream of becoming a footballer — first to Southampton, then to Tottenham Hotspur, before joining Real Madrid in 2013 for a then world record fee.
That this final is being played so close to Bale’s semi-detached childhood home — and just three miles from his old high school — has given the Welshman an added incentive, as Real attempt to become the first team in history to successfully defend a Champions League title.
“Of course it’s extra special,” Bale, once the world’s most expensive footballer, told CNN Español’s Enrique Marques ahead of Saturday’s final against Juventus.
“A Champions League final in itself is amazing but to have it in your home city, where you grew up and were born, is a very special occasion.
“Hopefully we can make it more special by winning the trophy there.”
But Bale has been facing a race against the clock to be fit for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
The 27-year-old underwent surgery after injuring his ankle in November and has since been suffering from recurring calf injuries, brought on by a premature return to action.
Bale concedes he is “obviously not 100% match fit” and is resigned to playing a bit part role, whether that’s from the start or as a substitute later in the game. Isco’s recent magical form means the Spaniard is more likely to start.
Since Real reached the final, beating city rivals Atletico 4-2 on aggregate, Bale has focused his energy on strengthening his ankle in an attempt to be part of manager Zinedine Zidane’s Cardiff plans.
“These freak injuries, which you can’t really do much about, are part and parcel of the game,” says the Welshman, without the slightest hint of bitterness.
“I’ve had a few injuries this year, which has been unfortunate for me, but I’ve been working hard over the last few weeks to strengthen my injury, to get my fitness up.
“If required, I’m ready to go.”
What frustrates Bale more than anything is the rich vein of form injury had interrupted.
After a difficult settling in period in Madrid, for which he endured his fair share of criticism, Bale has since become one of the team’s leading lights.
The Welshman’s status as a fan favorite was cemented after he scored the winner in the 2014 Champions League final. He also set up his side’s only goal in the final two years’ later.
Standing in the way of Real and history is a formidable Juventus side which is on course to register the Champions League’s joint-best defensive record.
With just three goals conceded in the tournament — an average of 0.25 goals a game — a clean sheet in the final would equal the previous best, set by runners-up Ajax in the 1995-96 season.
Bale is aware of the enormity of the task he and his teammates face against the Serie A champions. He will, however, be buoyed by the fact Real’s attack has been the competition’s most potent this season.
Thanks, in part, to Cristiano Ronaldo’s 10 goals — eight of which, incredibly, have come in the quarterfinals and semifinals — ‘Los Blancos’ have scored 33 goals in the tournament, an average of 2.75 per game.
“They’re in the final, so they’re doing something right — the same as us,” Bale says with a relaxed confidence.
“They’ve been very good, a very strong team. Defensively strong like Italians are known for, so we understand it’s going to be a very difficult game but we’re going to be prepared.
“We’re going to do all of our homework and try and exploit their weaknesses, and ultimately win the game.”
Bale, meanwhile, is also counting on the support of any Welsh fans who attend the game.
The overwhelming crowd favorite when Real Madrid beat Sevilla in Cardiff to win the UEFA Supercup three years ago, Bale revealed he has been inundated with ticket requests from friends and family desperate to see the local hero lift Europe’s greatest prize on home soil.
“They usually have to travel (to Champions League finals), so not many come!” he says with a grin. “But obviously, being in my home town, there have been a lot of requests.
“Some will get some, some will not, which is unfortunate. But they’ll all be supporting us.”