The three different stallholders outside the Santiago Bernabéu all gave the same answer.
“Nothing,” comes one reply to my query about how many shirts with Gareth Bale’s name on he sells these days. “He was a good seller when he arrived, but now he’s not in the top ten. Real Madrid need new stars.”
Sergio Ramos is the top seller, especially among Spanish Madrid fans. For the visiting international football tourists, an important part of the business plan for Madrid and Barça, it was Cristiano Ronaldo.
“Ronaldo was the bestseller every year he was here,” says another stallholder.
“Bale?” He shrugs. “I’m not even sure we have anything with his name on to sell.”
Gareth Bale is the most successful British footballer of his generation, one who has scored brilliant goals in the biggest games in world football; who sprinted past a (half fit, admittedly) Barcelona defender in the dying minutes of a cup final and was so determined to beat Marc Bartra that he left the pitch even though the ball didn’t. Then he scored.
If that happened to a player for Manchester United or Liverpool against their biggest rivals, he could have dined out on it for life.
But not at Madrid, where Bale has a curiously lukewarm relationship with fans. It frustrates them – and him – that he misses so many games to injury, but hasn’t that always been the case with Bale? The Welshman has averaged 37 games per season for Madrid since he joined them in 2013. Ronaldo averaged ten more per season.
Bale, who was the player some hoped could step up and be as influential as Ronaldo when the latter left for Juventus, was a substitute for the popular Lucas Vázquez last Tuesday night in Madrid’s 1-4 defeat by that splendid young Ajax team. He came on after 28 minutes to some jeers and some cheers. He gave the ball away soon after and wasn’t even given a mark in Marca the following day for his performance it was considered so bad (though Bale did hit the post). He wasn’t alone there, but Bale has still been a success in Madrid, by far the most successful club on the planet since 2014 – a year after Bale joined for a world-record transfer fee.
Bale’s won four European Cups and scored in three European Cup finals (one in a penalty shoot-out), but he’s not a major hero in Spain. It doesn’t help that after over five years of living in the country, he’s seldom spoken publicly in Spanish. His agent, in a defence of his under-fire player, claimed last week that Bale spoke Spanish. Really? So why not speak in the language of the country that pays your wages? It doesn’t have to be anything big, but the effort would be hugely appreciated.
To be fair to Bale, he’s not any different from Michael Owen, David Beckham or Mark Hughes when it comes to learning Spanish in Spain. Gary Lineker and Jonathan Woodgate did learn the language and found their experiences far richer for it.
Beckham was smart, too. He became close friends with the Brazilians in the dressing room. Coach Carlos Queiroz never could work out how he could talk for so long to Roberto Carlos every day when neither had a common language. And Beckham was always the first to celebrate any Madrid goal. He attended all the club dinners and was popular.
Bale’s closest to Luca Modric and Toni Kroos. The latter doesn’t speak decent Spanish either. Bale was criticised for not attending a recent players’ dinner – he said it was too late. Life in Madrid happens late on in the evening and no individual can change that. You either buy into the lifestyle – one which Bale and his family enjoy – or you do your own thing. And there are ways to ingratiate yourself even without speaking the language. Juan Sebastián Verón, who wasn’t a success at Manchester United, went on every night out with the rest of the players. They loved it when he tried to teach them songs from the ultras of Estudiantes. Antonio Valencia has lived in England for over a decade and would rather do an interview in English. It’s a shame, but he rose to become captain of Manchester United in part because he was very popular with the majority of the players in the United dressing room who don’t speak English as their first language.
Nobody questions Bale’s professionalism. He’s not a drinker, gambler or womaniser. But he’s not forged a strong connection with match-going Madrid fans either, something José Mourinho managed really well. Madridistas felt that Mourinho was one of their own, even if that meant us against the world.
Bale will barely be aware of how political a club such as Madrid can be either, with more undercurrents than the waters around Alcatraz. The Spanish players will be close to influential journalists who cover the team. Bale won’t even know who they are.
Even when Bale scored a hat-trick in the World Club championship semifinal some Spanish radio commentators chose to see a negative in that, suggesting that he saved his best for the big and not run-of-the-mill league games. That wasn’t fair.
Nor was it fair of Madrid fans to jeer Bale, as they did recently, a couple of games into the latest comeback from injury. He’d scored in his first game back against Espanyol, but was whistled when he came on for Vinícius against Alavés. Bale didn’t like that and was perceived to have snubbed Vázquez, who came to celebrate with him. It wasn’t personal; he seemed to want to show everyone that he was annoyed.
There seems to be a media campaign against Bale in Spain, but why? Club president Florentino Pérez genuinely likes Bale, though his club had to denounce him for making an obscene gesture towards Atlético fans last month in the derby.
It’s hard to smear Bale, because he lives a clean life, but despite being continuously linked with a return to England – to the point that Bale is single-handedly keeping the clickbait operations of several newspapers going – Bale has long maintained that he’s happy where he is. And he is. He plays golf in the sun, he wins European Cups, he earns more than any player in the Premier League on a contract that runs until 2022. When he signed that in 2016 he became the best-paid player in the world. Others soon overtook him.
People who know him say he’s a pleasant lad who couldn’t give two hoots what people say about him as he looks at his four European Cup winners’ medals. He’s pretty dull in interviews and rarely stops in mixed zones to speak to journalists. Few hold that against Lionel Messi.
Bale’s now getting used to life back under Zinedine Zidane, the man who annoyed him by leaving him out of the starting line-up in the Champions League final against Liverpool in Kiev. He came on, scored twice and was named man of the match.
Bale’s 30 in July. He doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone, but he does have to play well and play regularly if he’s to have a future at Real Madrid. That’s a Madrid that usually comes alive in May and overshadows every other team. Not this year, the year they hoped Bale would replace the possibly irreplaceable Ronaldo.
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