MADRID • Playing in a Champions League final in his home city was beyond Gareth Bale's dreams as a young footballer, but Saturday's Cardiff showpiece catches the Welshman at a career crossroads.
Real Madrid can make history by becoming the first team to retain the Champions League and complete a first LaLiga and Champions League double in 59 years in the process.
Yet, the fact most of the road to Cardiff has been travelled without an injured Bale this season and that there is little desire in Madrid for him to be rushed back to face Juventus shows how his fortunes have changed over the past year.
"It is massively special for me personally, as it is where I was born, where I grew up," said Bale, who won Champions League titles with Real in 2014 as well as last year.
"Any Champions League final is special, but obviously this is a little bit extra special. I always dreamt I'd play a Champions League final, but never in my home town."
Nearly 75,000 will cram into the Millennium Stadium on Saturday, but those coming for a closer look at the hometown hero may be disappointed.
Bale has not played since April 23, when he suffered the latest of a series of calf injuries that have blighted his four years in Madrid.
However, it is ankle ligament damage followed by an operation in November that has been the root cause of an injury-ravaged campaign.
"It has been difficult, physically and mentally," the 27-year-old, who returned from surgery in February, said.
"Obviously any surgery is difficult, but in the middle of a season is always that bit more difficult. You want to come back as soon as possible.
"In hindsight, I should have stayed out a bit longer and let it heal and strengthen."
Real have flourished in his absence.
Zinedine Zidane's men claimed a first LaLiga title in five years with Bale's understudy Isco's stunning form playing a huge role in the final stages of the season.
However, Bale distanced himself from suggestions that not starting in the final could plant a seed of doubt over his future at the Bernabeu, insisting that it is for occasions like Saturday that he moved to the Spanish capital.
"You never expect to win two (Champions League) finals, never mind three," he said.
"It is the reason I came to this club, to play in finals, to win trophies.
"Hopefully we can add another one now on Saturday."