Gareth Bale could be a Real Madrid cult hero so why has it gone so wrong? | Jonathan Wilson | Football
On the one hand, the massive imbalances of wealth within football are a terrible thing. On the other, they can lead to deliciously ludicrous morality tales. The hero is lured to a faraway kingdom by promises of unimaginable wealth and other heroes to hero with. The hero heroes but perhaps not as heroically as some would like. Then the king decides he wants a new hero and that means this hero must leave. But this hero enjoys his luxurious life and doesn’t want to go anywhere where there may be fewer other heroes to hero with and where the pillows may be less silken and the fairways less lush. Impasse ensues.
This could be about Neymar and Paris Saint-Germain but it’s about Gareth Bale and Real Madrid – and the fact that the pattern repeats with such contrasting personalities suggests the issue is systemic issue rather than being about individuals. The culture of super-clubs has led to a cult of super-players and the problem with super-players is that only super-clubs and Chinese franchises can afford them. When one tires of the other, there are very few places for the super-player to go.
Even after the cruciate injury suffered by Marco Asensio this week, Bale probably will end up leaving Madrid this summer. PSG (need to resolve Neymar situation) and Bayern (may need his wages subsidising) are interested. Jiangsu Suning have reportedly made an offer. Bale, sitting on a contract worth £600,000 a week for the next three years, is understandably reluctant to make any hasty decisions. But none of that explains the bitterness that now exists between Bale on one side and Madrid’s coach, Zinedine Zidane, and fans on the other.
The argument that Bale hasn’t integrated into Spanish life feels a little hollow. There are plenty of players who struggle with the local language who have been successful. And so what if he plays a lot of golf? There are many more damaging extra-curricular activities that a footballer could indulge. Complaints about lifestyle tend to be symptomatic of a deeper dissatisfaction.
Yet, on the face of it, Bale’s time at Real Madrid has been a success.
It’s true there have been injuries – 72 games missed through 17 separate problems in his six years at Madrid – but he has still managed 133 league starts in that time. More than that, he’s scored vital goals – three in Champions League finals, two of them vital game-changing strikes, and one of them arguably the greatest goal ever scored in a major final. Perhaps it’s true that Bale never quite got going in Spain, that there have been flashes and hints rather than sustained excellence, but equally there’s more than enough material there to build a cult hero. There was enough for Madrid to offer him a six-year deal worth in excess of £150m in October 2016.
The issue has perhaps been twofold: expectation and the absurd incoherence that so often afflicts Florentino Pérez’s content generator. Bale arrived in 2013 for a world-record fee as the designated successor to the previous holder of that accolade, Cristiano Ronaldo. But not only was he never the new Ronaldo, the old Ronaldo turned out to be nowhere near obsolescence as it had appeared.
That created an immediate tactical problem. Bale had excelled in his final season at Tottenham cutting in from the left but that was the space occupied by Ronaldo. Bale ended up playing mainly on the right, an awkward accommodation that immediately raised the question of why a club would pay world-record fees for two players who wanted to play in the same position.
As Ronaldo aged and stripped his role back, so the opportunities for Bale to play as he had at Spurs became increasingly limited. What he needed was a 4-3-3 with a centre-forward who got out of the way, creating space for him to accelerate into. What he got was a 4-4-2 that generated much of its width from full-back and demanded a more patient technical style from its midfielders. In six years, Madrid have spent around £300m on Bale in transfer fee and wages and yet have almost never played him in the role in which he impressed them.
Which is not necessarily to paint Bale as a victim, particularly if there is substance to the rumours that Zidane’s increasingly militant stance has been prompted by his truculence in the latter part of last season. It’s not as though Bale seized the opportunity when Ronaldo had finally cleared out of the way. Equally, while he can’t be blamed for insisting his contract be honoured, there is something a little depressing that that seems more of a priority than actually using his talents at the highest possible level for the handful of seasons that remain for him as a player. It’s surely not how the Bale of that famous childhood photo, clad in his Madrid replica shirt, grinning awkwardly and raising his fingers in a victory sign, hoped it would turn out.
Fundamentally, though, this is a problem of Madrid’s own making: if you treat players like commodities, you can’t be surprised if they come to regard themselves as value-creation machines. The situation could be sad, but really it’s just silly: what actually, other than the dignity of the game, the dreams of children and the sense of sport as a noble pursuit in and of itself, has been lost?