The last in a long list of players booed by the Santiago Bernabeu, it’s very likely that Gareth Bale will leave Real Madrid this summer without really knowing the reason behind the socios’ disapproval, and he probably won’t care either.
But even if the explanation is at this point useless – Bale is on his way out and most fans have already cut the cord mentally with him --, it makes sense to analyze where this relationship went wrong because it speaks volumes about how the Bernabeu appraises its players and decides when to keep rooting for someone who undergoes a rough spell or when to drop the hammer.
Of course, it’s hard to describe the stadium or the socios as a single, agreeing entity, especially in the last few years, in which the number of non-season ticket holders has increased in every match, and with it a more diverse set of followers. But indeed, above potential arguments and families within the Madridistas, in most controversial cases the Bernabeu forms an almost monolithic opinion, and Bale’s case is one of them.
The level of vitriol towards certain players at the Bernabeu shocks foreign correspondents, used to a different style of supporters, especially if they’ve been raised in the culture of the ever-loving English middle class in terms of the team they supported as kids. English fans take pride in chanting more when they lose than when they win, in supporting their team over any critical judgement of their players.
At the Bernabeu, right or probably wrong, we were raised in the opposite culture: we’re fickle and stupidly demanding, almost in an exaggerated capitalist manner, so with very few exceptions, every player is as good as his last match. If anyone underperforms in a noticeable manner, we let them know, with a gentle, but disquieting murmur at first, and eventually, if things don’t improve, with loud boos and whistles.
The first two targets of boos I can recall clearly were fullbacks: Claudemir Vitor, Brazilian right back who had to be replaced before halftime of his second match at the Bernabeu because he was shaking after taking a memorable round of boos, and Carlos Alberto Secretario – Portuguese international who was almost as hesitant and faint-hearted as Vitor. From that era, I incorporated the Bernabeu’s noise scale: we do the murmur thing to warn the player that he has to improve, and we take it up a few notches to the boo level when we just want the coach to send that specific player to the bench.
I know that this is probably not the best combination of corrective actions from a formative perspective, but the whole stadium behaves that way, and the notion of clapping someone who is not pulling his weight to cheer him up feels preposterous to most of us. Mind you, we value effort over class in most cases, so while missing a sitter could get you in trouble, not trying hard to close in on an opponent or getting to the end of a cross WILL get you in trouble and will be remembered for months.
Over the course of almost six seasons, Bale’s perception in the Santiago Bernabeu has been generally high, or even very high at times. He looked the part when he arrived, and finished his first season with 22 goals, the most he’s ever scored with Real Madrid. He did have some injury trouble, but the general feeling was that there we had found the heir to Cristiano Ronaldo: an athletic forward who could score from distance and in speed, a fantastic finisher and someone who at times was a bit selfish in front of the goal, always a good sign when you look for a dependable striker. His go-ahead goal in the Champions League final was just the confirmation: this was a player to build a team around, or at least to take over from Ronaldo around the end of the decade.
He’s pretty much repeated those two traits year after year: the memorable goals in key matches and the succession of injuries that kept him out of the team for long stretches of the season. Up to now, Bale has played less than 70% of LaLiga matches with his club, less than 50% Copa del Rey ones and 60% of Champions League contests. At the same time, he’s scored in Club World Cup finals, Copa del Rey ones and, of course, two Champions League finals.
While that track record is hard to emulate, his unreliability in terms of fitness has put many socios off. Of course, that’s not entirely his responsibility, but you do see other players reducing the amount of off time they have season after season with a variety of treatments. Bale, again injured as I write these lines, has not gotten any better. He’s only played more than 30 La Liga matches – out of a potential 38 – once.
In seasons with 70+ matches, you can hardly build a team around a player who’s not available 30% of the time, and that is something he never understood. He expected to play as soon as he recovered from every injury, which proved counterproductive time and again. Despite the public backing he enjoyed from Ancelotti, Benitez and Zidane – all them stated that Bale would always start as long as he was fit –, he complained privately several times when he did not start as soon as he came back from injury, and famously said he needed to play week in week out after last season’s Champions League victory over Liverpool. Those statements were obscured by Ronaldo’s, of course, but that wasn’t a smart move by Bale if he wanted to keep the Bernabeu’s support.
Among people close to him, the story goes that he thought Zidane disliked him simply because the Frenchman brought him back bit by bit to the team for that final, and did not risk his fitness to start him. As those pre-final matches happened, I was concerned because I thought Bale was playing too much, so imagine how different our respective ideas of the right way to manage his health are.
But back to the Bernabeu. I do believe that the stadium evaluates players in a mostly meritocratic manner: if you pull your weight, they’ll support you, even if there are rumours of you going out too many nights during the week, or if they don’t like where you come from. We’ve seen party animals and players from everywhere and every club making it bit in La Castellana, but I can’t remember a single one who publicly showed doubts over his future and did not pay for it at some point. Believing that someone is bigger than the club is a fatal offence: The socios will remember.
But in terms of Bale, the problem wasn’t the golf, or the fact that he does not speak Spanish, or the gossip about him not getting along with other players . All those things capture the imagination of the foreign media, but the reasons behind the Bernabeu’s boos are much simpler. Bale did cross a red line a few weeks ago with his bizarre gesture after scoring against Atletico de Madrid – hard to understand what he meant, but in no way that was something that would endear him to the fans – but especially with his refusal to embrace Lucas Vazquez after his penalty in Levante.
Again, I have not heard a single socio speak about Bale’s devotion for golf or his (non-existent) Spanish, but I’ve heard a lot of anger about those two gestures. They’re interpreted as a break-up with the team, even if Bale tried to soften the issue with an Instagram pic showing him and Vazquez celebrating afterwards. Bale’s low profile does not help either: a statement to the press, rather than an Instagram post – an app most socios haven’t heard of—, would have taken plenty of the noise off the Welshman’s shoulders.
In all truth, this was a story bound to finish sooner rather than later. From the start of the season it was evident that Bale’s frail health was never going to cover for Cristiano’s mindboggling reliability. If at some point in the past the club thought that was possible, this season erased that idea, and that meant the end of Bale’s tenure with the club.
However, Bale could have left Madrid as a cherished, beloved athlete that earned the club plenty of silverware and brought more than a handful of powerful memories. Now, if he does not make amends, he’ll leave as a on/off player who could not connect with his teammates, and that would be a huge shame.