Gareth Bale has come in for fierce criticism for his recent behaviour at Real Madrid – such as in the famous Marca front page that branded him ‘Disrespectful. Misguided. Ungrateful. In that order’. Here Spanish football journalist DIEGO TORRES explains just why Bale is seen as such a controversial character in Madrid, despite the success he has enjoyed in seven years at the club, and why he has had such vitriol poured upon him.
‘Madridistas’ are mavericks by nature. This demanding collective character, nonconformist to the point of hysteria, has been fostered for more than 80 years, through democracies and dictatorship.
When Real Madrid became the flagship of a post-war Spain under Franco’s regime, the club became a sort of Ministry of Happiness for a devastated country. No club has enjoyed more institutional support in the history of sport. No other has surfed the wave of such outstanding propaganda. No other has produced fans with such a belief in their right to superiority.
‘Madridistas’ feel superior to everybody else, including their own football heroes. Gareth Bale is just another expensive link in the chain.
It’s a culture. A belief that you are entitled to feel you are a winner, regardless of the dynamics of a game in which the chances of losing are superior to those of winning a title. In the old order of the white shirt, players are not perceived as football stars but serfs of an insatiable crowd-like monster crying silverware, no matter the cost. Since Florentino Perez’s arrival in the presidency, this trend has become even more aggressive.
The problem with Bale was the fantastical level of expectancy he was presented with. He was acquired in 2013 for €100million (then £86m), back then a record signing, even though he never was a Ballon d’Or contender.
Reality collided with illusion when, at his presentation, he was introduced to the crowd with all the pomp you would attribute to the heir of the Football God himself, Cristiano Ronaldo, the most prolific goalscorer in the club’s history.
That was Florentino’s plan. The guy from Wales had come to be the long-term replacement for Cristiano. He got a salary in accordance with that: around €10m in the first year, then more, and more, and more. Next season he will be getting more than €19m (£17m): the fourth-highest salary in football after Lionel Messi, Neymar and Cristiano. It is maybe too much for yawning on the bench, left out of the team, unloved by Sergio Ramos and Zinedine Zidane.
They can be capricious but, it is fair to say, ‘Madridistas’ have a sixth sense when it comes to detecting the feelings of the men who put on the white shirt. For many of them it became apparent, from the start, that if Cristiano was always under the president’s scrutiny, Bale was the president’s protege.
The difference was in the level of passion shown. While Cristiano is obviously a football nut, Bale didn’t pretend to being anything other than a frustrated golfer. Rarely as committed with the team as with scoring goals just to prove the president right, his presence on the pitch rarely provoked more than a mild response from the stands.
Many fans longing for something different loved the uniqueness of his British politeness, many succumbed to the power of his stride and the purity of his shot, as it was eloquently sold by the media. But many simply ignored him in the belief that he just did what he was paid for in the realm of the mighty Cristiano, who let’s not forget, was also himself sometimes whistled and criticised by his own insatiable supporters.
You will never stand out by playing golf and sleeping gently during work hours in Madrid. People in this town love that kind of easygoing way of life. There is prestige in it. No matter if you are the old Bourbon king doing nothing or a football player being out of order.
Never hated, never really loved by the majority, Bale went from fleeting cult hero after his goal in the 2014 Champions League final to a sort of eccentric character in the never-ending comedy of the most thrilling club on Earth.
It’s been seven seasons since the arrival of this mysterious man. In these times of ultra-consumerism in football where everyone is disposable, and by Real Madrid standards, that is an eternity.
It’s proof that Bale has never really been perceived as a negative influence on the team. ‘Madridistas’ rarely love nor hate their players because they would rather stay in the shallow end, and loving and hating implies taking a deep plunge. They simply see the guy as one of the many who just took advantage of the privilege of being at Real Madrid.
Diego Torres writes for El Pais in Spain and is the author of The Special One – the secret world of Jose Mourinho.