But the Cardiff Blues' young gun chose rugby over soccer and is set to be rewarded with his first Test appearance from the replacement bench against Canada in Toronto on Saturday.
Warburton, 20, said: "I was in high school with Gareth and we were in the same group of mates and I was in quite a few classes with him so I used to come across him a fair bit.
"We played in the same school team too and you could tell he was going to be a professional from year seven - he was outstanding and the best footballer I've ever seen.
"He was awesome and head and shoulders above the rest. He was always really busy and going down to Southampton before he made the move full-time.
"He's worked really hard at his game and he's reaping the rewards now."
Budding sporting talent Warburton had a trial with his home-town Cardiff City at the age of 14. But he admits he has no regrets in following close pal Bale by pursuing a career in football.
Warburton said: "I was a good school player but there was no chance of me being another Gareth Bale. He's in a league of his own. I did have a trial at Cardiff City but it made me realise how far off I was and how rugby would be my best chance.
"I suppose my claim to fame was when Gareth said if I wasn't playing in defence our team wouldn't win!
"I used to play centre-back but I don't think I would ever have made a living out of football. I only turned to rugby seriously when I was about 15 and you have to make a decision at that age. You can't play both alongside each other.
"I still play a bit of football, but rugby has definitely taken over now and I absolutely love it."
Warburton has been earmarked for international honours for some time having represented Wales at every age-grade and captained both the Three Feathers' under-19 and under-20 sides.
But the openside flanker has been dogged by injuries, a shoulder reconstruction and a serious knee injury, which has forced him to wait until five months shy of his 21st birthday to fulfil a boyhood's dream.
And with British Lions star Martyn Williams away in South Africa, Warburton admits he has a golden chance to stamp his mark on the number seven jersey.
Warburton said: "My favourite position is seven and that's where I'd like to be long term. I started out there at school and after a brief stint in the second row, I moved back to cover all positions between six and eight.
"But to play at No 8 nowadays, you've got to be 6ft 4ins like Andy Powell and Ryan Jones. I'm never going to be that size so seven will be my long-term position."
WALES: Daniel Evans; Tom James, Jonathan Davies, Andrew Bishop, Chris Czekaj; Dan Biggar, Gareth Cooper; Duncan Jones, Richard Hibbard, John Yapp, Bradley Davies, Deiniol Jones Dafydd Jones, Robin Sowden-Taylor, Ryan Jones (Captain).
Replacements: Gareth Williams, Craig Mitchell, Ian Gough, Sam Warburton, Dwayne Peel, Nicky Robinson, Jonathan Spratt