Is Gareth Bale the new Mesut Özil of north London?
Things hadn't been going well for a while for the Welshman at Real Madrid, and so a return to his former club seemed like the perfect way to revive a dwindling career.
I had been watching Real Madrid for a number of years before Gareth Bale made the headlines and joined the club in 2013. Sat in my usual seat not far from the touchline and along from the dugouts in the East stand, I arrived a little earlier than normal for the Welshman’s first home game.
The excitement in the local bars was clear. The prospect of seeing the 100-million-euro player lining up in the famous white shirt had everyone talking. The fervour suggested a common expectation that his debut would involve startling wing play just like against Inter Milan, a moment that had caught Florentino Pérez’s attention in the player’s Tottenham highlights reel. From the star-struck kids to the weathered retirees in the Madridista following, all eyes were going to be on Bale.
Bale: stepping into Cristiano-sized shoes
This sense of stardom in waiting - remember that this powerful, goalscoring winger was seen as the successor to the then king, Cristiano Ronaldo, after they had shared the pitch for a few seasons together - only grew as we took our seats. Most of the regulars were around me but there were also a few new faces, possibly handing over some serious cash to the ticket holder to watch a new chapter for Los Blancos begin (Bale had already scored on his debut away to Villarreal). And the chatter continued, with a conversation between a father and son one in particular that stayed with me.
“Wait till you see this English guy,” the life-long elder explained to his 12-year old, with the oft-made nationality error that would be solved in one swing with a certain flag celebration a number of years later. “He is faster than Cristiano and will help us get over him when he leaves.”
There was generally a chest-out confidence in the stands of the Santiago Bernabéu, and this was turned up a notch on that evening against city rivals Atlético.
In the end it turned out to be a rather tame home bow for the new signing. But faith in the new star was a long, long way from being eroded from those singing their anthem proudly in Chamartín. Madrid fans are demanding of their players, that’s what generations of success brings with it, but they tend to give you a chance, at least for a while. As that particular game progressed the father continued to wax lyrical about the Welshman. “Here he goes, here he goes,” was the repeated mutter to his child every time he received the ball to feet.
Unfortunately it was almost always followed by, “ahhh well, next time.” This Madridista born and bred was desperate for Bale to succeed, and this seemed to be the feeling for most. Injury had kept the new man from appearing until late September that year, and by half-time he was forced off again, a calf strain that would mean he wouldn’t see out the rest of that 0-1 defeat.
The changing attitude to Bale
For complete transparency, I should admit that I was less excited by his signing at that time, and maybe that has clouded my view of the player over the years in Madrid. As an avid viewer of the Premier League I had seen Bale’s talents, and was also excited that I was going to witness them on a bi-weekly basis just a few metres from me. But I had been impressed with what Ángel di Maria - the man who would be making way for the new headline-maker - brought to the team on a regular basis. The Argentine may not have had the international eye-catching moments (actually there were plenty, and, maybe tellingly, his clever run that gave Bale a 2014 UCL final tap-in didn’t get the attention I felt it deserved back home) but he was a constant thorn in opposition sides, and that allowed other players to find extra room. But his replacement was here and I observed closely. Possibly too closely.
For months, leading into the early years, there was a constant buzz across the stands when a teammate fed the ball to Bale in a promising position. The idea that an athletic burst was in the offing, or a cut inside and powerful strike at goal imminent had people off their seats with eager anticipation. And there were times when his actions led to a fully justified round of applause or standing ovation. There was clearly something special. But all too often, the outcome was a sigh, something that eventually became a frustration, and then just an irritation - aligned to a perceived lack of effort off the pitch to truly be one with the club that had brought him in to be a global superstar, and rewarded him commensurately.
Was this changing attitude justified? For me, yes, although I never agreed with the booing or insulting of him that was heard more as time, and patience, wore on. That made no sense, but being critical of his performances, absolutely, just like any other player who regularly doesn’t deliver. The idea sometimes heard back in the UK, however, that he was being singled out because he was a 'foreigner' made just as little sense as the abuse he faced in and around the stadium.
But the disappointment from many fans, whether they realised it or not, was because the level of expectation was so high. Games were not meant to pass him by, he was supposed to be the new Galáctico, wowing the crowd, scaring the opposition, providing that mythical 1-0 lead before kick- off as a certain Portuguese teammate often did. Maybe the hype was just overblown, and that was certainly not Gareth’s fault. Unlike several in his position, he chose the quiet path, never boasting publicly about his talents.
The Özil comparison
When Mesut Özil left for Arsenal I remember telling my Gunners-supporting friends that they were getting a huge talent but that they’d have to accept that those world-class moments wouldn’t appear every time he got the ball, and he would likely be perceived as somewhat lazy. “Nonsense!” some replied. "He’s a class act and will transform our team, win games on his own." They had seen LaLiga highlights shows too.
And they weren’t wrong in the sense that the German international did have magic in his boots. Özil was one of those players I could watch all day. He would glide across the pitch with the ball at his feet, defenders (usually more than one) having little idea how he was going to beat them until it happened, and his graceful first-touch control under pressure or his delicate pin-point through-pass were worth a prolonged applause, not because it necessarily resulted in a goal, just because of its beauty. But..., yes, there’s obviously a ‘but’.
For all Özil’s genius with the ball, there was a constant nagging feeling that he should be doing more without it. “You’ve just had a pass intercepted, run the fuck back and make up for it,” was a regular call from those around me in the stands, truly testing my grasp of the more colloquial aspects of my new language. It didn’t take too long before similar sounds were being heard in North London.
And this is where Bale’s similarity could lie. Of course he will show glimpses of genius and, when fit, can prove just what a super athlete he can be. My concern though, is that the homecoming hype, as per his foreign adventure, is greater than the reality that awaits. I hope I’m proved wrong…
Bale's chance to add a career-ending gloss
I honestly do want it to work out well this year for Bale. He seems like a genuinely nice guy and after a number of disappointing years he can maybe deliver some joy for Spurs fans before heading off for potentially a final big tournament with his beloved Wales. But I’d urge caution in building up the expectations too much.
Listening to ebullient pundits and ex-players talk about his return has made me uneasy. Almost every one of them backs up their giddy anticipation with thoughts of three world-class moments from the Welshman - I need say no more than 'Inter, Barça and Liverpool' - or about his trophy haul. Any talk about how he influenced games on a regular basis, controlled play, linked with teammates, showed true leadership, or was tactically astute, have all been notable by their absence.
Don’t get me wrong, Bale has offered more than just that oft-quoted jaw-dropping triplet, at times looking like the world-beater he was lined up to be, but his overall contribution in each game surely has to provide a balance to the discussion. This seems to have been forgotten on most occasions.
He didn’t win those titles on his own, and in some of them - take the latest LaLiga crown as a clear example - he’s picked up a medal without playing much of a part in the collective effort. The history books will show that Lucas Vázquez, for example, can also boast a personal cabinet full of medals, and it wouldn’t take long to put together a case that he was more involved than his illustrious teammate in many games, doing a lot of the hard work needed for the team’s success, but without the headline-grabbing scenes.
The loan move to Spurs appears to have every party in the deal fairly happy. It’ll be great to see if Bale can indeed find a consistency at the top level to add to his impressive highlights reel to date. There will certainly be plenty of analysis over his contribution in the Premier League and, just like those early days in the Bernabéu stands, there will be fathers extolling his virtues to their offspring. At least at the beginning...
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