It seems, regardless of whether the Welsh forward is willing to accept it or not, Gareth Bale’s time at Real Madrid has come to an end. His tenure at the Bernabeu has been exhilarating, frustrating, fruitful and largely ugly — and that doesn't seem set to change this summer as his farewell has hit the small hitch of the player not actually wanting to go.
Even if Real Madrid don’t strike Bale’s name off their records this summer, it won’t change that fact that, barring a miracle, the 30-year-old’s time in the capital is up. Hence, as the media and the player continue the waltz they've been dancing for the last five years, we can begin to ask ourselves; what do we talk about when we talk about Gareth Bale? What is the Welshman’s legacy?
Generally scoring the winner in three major finals, one of those being your club’s biggest European final in a decade, ensures legendary status. However, the discourse surrounding Gareth Bale has mostly been about events and things said off the pitch rather than what has happened on it. It leaves the Welshman’s legacy in a strange place, especially when one digs a little below the surface of Bale’s media issues.
Something that has always struck me about Gareth Bale is the contempt he has bred by doing hardly anything. Bale has kept largely to himself since joining Real Madrid and there is hardly anything concrete regarding the Welshman’s lifestyle or attitude off the pitch. Perhaps its this lack of a public image that has borne the fact that such a negative one has been made to fill it.
Nonetheless this premium of actual information, has allowed a characterization of Gareth Bale to be built out of the things said about and around the Welshman rather than anything he himself has said.
It’s an image made from a media who clearly don’t like Bale and have pitched him as distant, lazy, and reluctant to embrace Spanish life while many of his team-mates have either clumsily or purposefully confirmed that characterization of Bale. Throughout this whole affair, Bale himself has been a spectator. Whether he actually can’t speak Spanish or is just too shy to use it, the 30-year-old only stays in his own public image, and it’s through his confrontational agent who has largely only given the Spanish media ammunition, that has made the situation worse.
The atmosphere surrounding Bale has become so toxic that when information about his actual lifestyle does come out, they are used as weapons to reaffirm the image that has already been made for him. Never has the fact that a player plays golf in his free time or that he goes to bed early been made as big an issue as it has in the case of the Welshman.
It is a truly unique and rather depressing state of affairs and there is only one obvious reason as to why things have ended this way: his injuries. Perhaps the fact that Bale has kept largely to himself since joining Madrid has rubbed up fans and media the wrong way. and perhaps its down to his own failure not being able to control Jonathan Barrett’s media appearances — but what’s ever-present in the Bale story is the fact that he has been largely injured for his time at Real Madrid.
Recurring injury setbacks rarely breed sympathy among football fans — especially ones as demanding as Madridistas. Any initial empathy for the player eventually breeds anger and frustration after repeated setbacks. There comes a point where, in their frustration and anger, fans look for someone to blame, and that is generally the player himself. From there, the discourse is no longer about how unlucky the player is for being injured, but rather about the things he should supposedly be doing to get back from injury.
That Bale is out playing golf is no longer a pastime, its something that the Welshman is doing when he should be working tirelessly to get back from injury. When his performances aren't immediate upon return, or he suffers a relapse, its further proof that Bale lacks work ethic or hasn't got his heart fully invested in Real Madrid. That’s the narrative, anyway.
For the media, kicking Bale while he’s down is easy money and furthers their agenda that he is taking the spot from harder working Spaniards in the squad. This unsympathetic view of Bale of course forgets the vital human factor to an injured footballer, something which fans or journalists will never understand.
Speaking in a video for Time to Talk Day, West Ham player Ryan Fredericks spoke about his experiences with injuries: “People don’t really understand on the outside that when you get injured.... They say it’s nice, you go in, you still get paid, you just go sit on the physio bed and get your massages or whatever, but there’s nothing worse for a footballer. All you’re used to doing is going out there and grafting, so when you’re injured and that’s taken away from you, it’s lonely as well.”
“You’re coming in at different times every day, you’re not socializing with the boys, you can’t get involved in some of the banter and they’re talking about games they’ve played in and you weren't there. There’s not much you can chip in for, so there’s lonely times.”
Fredericks experience isn't an isolated one.
Sports psychologist Michael Caulfield spoke of similar experiences amongst injured players he has worked with: “When everyone has left the building to train, warm up or go for a team meeting, I always stay with the player. I don’t tell them what to do and, when and where possible, the vital ingredient and timing of humour is necessary. I try to do a combination of listening and saying very little as they are frequently angry, low, even lower than low and often depressed.”
Adapting to a new country, a new culture and a new language isn’t easy for anyone, so for a footballer to be removed from that environment through recurring injury setbacks is naturally going to breed a sense of distance between Bale and his teammates. Disregarding a few chunks over the last five years, hardly anything has gone Bale’s way since leaving Spurs. In this sense, one could admire his bravery and willingness to stick with Madrid this summer despite the adversity that he has faced.
When we talk about Gareth Bale, we are dragged down a murky rabbit hole of events surrounding the Welshman off the pitch. By in large, the opinion of every fan is formed by how much faith they place in the media and whether we want to believe Bale’s silence in this entire affair is vindication of that media or merely the character of the player.
One way or another, time is the great healer of all. The Madrid media are no strangers to vilifying Real Madrid players. Even the great Alfredo Di Stefano had to face their ire before leaving the Bernabeu. In the end, it’s a player’s actions on the pitch that stand the test of time and ensure that, regardless of what is said about him, Gareth Bale is a Real Madrid legend.