It’s regarded as one of more the more memorable terrace banners, “we’re not fickle, we just don’t like you” manages to capture some of the base sentiments of modern-day football fans in only eight words.
It’s perhaps surprising that the banner was actually held up by Aston Villa fans in protest of their much-detested manager David O’Leary in 2006, and not Real Madrid fans who are famously the ficklest of all fans around the globe.
Real Madrid is an impossible club to be a part of. It’s a club where a manager like Fabio Capello can win the league, but that won’t be enough for him to keep his job. It’s a club where icons and legends like Cristiano Ronaldo, Alfred Di Stefano, Iker Casillas and Emilio Butragueno have all been booed and jeered down the years. The pressure of playing for a club the size of Los Blancos can be intolerable for some, players and managers can be chewed up and spat, never to be the same again.
No player in the modern-day knows more about the pressures of playing for one of the biggest clubs in the world than the Welsh maestro, Gareth Bale.
On paper, the man from Cardiff should be a legend at the club. At the time of writing, he has 105 goals in 249 appearances, a La Liga title, a Copa Del Rey trophy, a Supercopa de España, two UEFA Super Cups, three FIFA Club World Cups and of course, an incredible four UEFA Champions League wins to his name.
And it’s not just numbers, he has scored three goals in Champions League finals – Including one to rescue the game for Real against their rivals Atletico de Madrid in 2014 and the other, arguably the greatest ever scored in a major final – and another wonder goal in the 2014 Copa Del Rey final against the bigger rivals, Barcelona.
There is an argument, however, that despite the impressive numbers and sparkling trophy haul, Bale has lacked any sort of consistency as Jonathon Wilson wrote in The Guardian, ‘Perhaps it is true Bale never quite got going in Spain, that there have been flashes and hints rather than sustained excellence.’
Injuries have held back Bale significantly during his time at the Santiago Bernabéu. According to Transfermarkt, Bale has missed a whopping 81 games in seven seasons. All of them are different injuries – his calf, his groin, his thigh. Any player with these amount of injuries would suffer as a consequence, something which Sergio Ramos believes is the case when he spoke to Goal.com about why teammate had never hit the heights expected of him:
“I think it’s that, because he’s a player who generates so much power, a bad warm-up or a cold day can mean that he has some physical problems or strains from which an injury can come, and accidental injuries, the traumatic ones, you cannot do anything because it’s a knock, a bad turn or something like that, they are unavoidable. The thing is that, when a player has the speed or the power that he generates when he is at his peak performances, any type of contact can cause a problem.”
Even taking into account his poor injury record, Madridistas have seemingly never afforded Bale the benefit of the doubt like they might have with other players to pull on the famous white shirt.
Madridistas are fairly notorious in the world of football. They are among the most demanding supporters in the world and won’t hesitate to jeer their own players, even if it is one poor game out of 38 game season. The reason for this is simple, the team has to win. If they see any complacency or any lack of effort, then they will let the players know. Other lesser-talented players with poorer records, have come through the doors of the Santiago Bernabéu and have received less heckling than Bale because, in the supporters’ eyes, they’ve shown the fight and endeavour expected of a player representing Los Merengues.
Every game is essentially an interview to prove if you are worthy of playing for the club.
This demand for excellence only increases as the profile of a player rises. So, when Real Madrid sign the PFA Players’ Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year for the phenomenal fee of €100 million, then they expect the world.
Consequently, as a player signed as the Ronaldo heir apparent that then doesn’t deliver when the king vacates the throne, Madridistas feel they are well within their right to heckle Bale at every opportunity they get.
Criticism of Bale in recent seasons has turned increasingly toxic, however, turning an already silly situation into something nastier.
MARCA (more on them later) in 2015 published a scathing article about Bale, describing him as ‘absent, lost and identifying little with the cause’ and criticising his lack of attempts at integrating with the squad over two years after arriving in Madrid. The BBC and their Spanish football writer at the time, Andy West, responded to the article, claiming that that the article was written with ulterior motives in mind, namely attacking the favourite player of Real’s president, Florentino Perez, who was involved in a war of words with MARCA at the time. MARCA attacked back, bizarrely publishing a short article about Jimmy Saville’s involvement with the BBC.
More recently, fan aversion to Bale has only gotten worse. There was already a perceived poor attitude towards the club, fans point to when Bale asked the club not to publicly report the specifics of one of his injuries which prevented him from playing. It somehow turned from fickleness into general dislike.
There have also been claims, most notably from Thibaut Courtois, that he doesn’t socialise with the rest of the squad and nor does he speak Spanish. This is another one that has been refuted by the captain Sergio Ramos, “I am sure that is not a problem because I am convinced that he understands Spanish perfectly well, that he speaks perfectly well with his friends and the people around him. When he is with the media and he has to express himself publicly, he doesn’t do it, but it’s not a problem at all a language issue because he understands perfectly his teammates, the coach and the people who speak to him.”
Then in 2019, just make his position at the club completely untenable, came the latest inciting incident: ‘Wales. Golf. Madrid.’
It all began with Pedja Mijatovic, the former Real and Montenegrin striker, who on a radio show claimed: “he hadn’t spoken to Gareth Bale but the impression he got was that his priorities were Wales, golf, and Madrid – and in that order.”
Bale’s love of golf is well known, in the past stating that “I don’t really watch much football, I’d rather watch the golf, to be honest” and often playing a few rounds on matchdays before the game. It’s something he had been accused of before, loving golf more than he loved Real, a crime in the eyes of Madridistas.
After Mijatovic’s comments, flags mocking the notion were made and found their way onto the pitch as Wales celebrated reaching Euro 2020. Gareth Bale thought of it all as a bit of fun, as he danced and celebrated with a ‘Wales. Golf. Madrid.’ wrapped around him.
Madrid, and the media that support them, were far from amused.
‘Bale mocks/disrespects/provokes Real Madrid’ was one of the headlines in Spain the next day, while another magazine, AS, listed the three things he had done to agitate his club – ‘pushing for a January departure, wanting to play for Wales after a month out, leaving matches early and heading off to London rather than training’. Rumours of him leaving the club continued to swirl over his head, with a move to China failing to materialise.
Still, Bale found the whole situation amusing. Supposedly a generally quiet, but affable man who likes to spend time with his family, it is in a way is a testament to how laid back an individual he is how he continued to laugh while his reputation in Madrid fell down around him.
That is intended to be a criticism of him but is perhaps a slight naïve streak for him to think he could continue to play, which he made clear he wanted to do when he stated he wanted to see his contract through without there being any repercussions. Especially, and here comes perhaps the most important factor in this saga, when he plays for the biggest club in the country who the sports media is almost completely devoted.
As Sid Lowe pointed out to the Set Pieces, “In Spain, it is absolutely clear cut. In Spain, it’s not that each journalist has their taste, it’s a commercial decision. They are newspapers that define themselves by their interest and support of a club. Real Madrid fans, for example, would disagree with me. They’d say, ‘Well, actually the Madrid media try and screw us over,’ that they screw them over with preferences for certain people within the club. That they screw them over by considering themselves important, or that they influence decisions, but the bottom line is that the two Real Madrid supporting newspapers want Real Madrid to win the European Cup.”
Sports media in Spain is extraordinary. You can flick through the major publication and be totally unaware that any club, or sport, exists in Spain outside of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Atletico de Madrid. Magazines and websites will be wall-to-wall content covering the ‘big three’ making it an incredibly frustrating endeavour trying to find any information about other teams in the country. The media would even rather tell you about what players had for dinner, what’s in their suitcases or what they dreamt of that night before covering any other clubs. The two main newspapers – AS and MARCA – account for more than 80% of the entire football sector in terms of revenue and readers, and although both have been experiencing declining numbers in recent years, MARCA still managed to score 14.2 million unique visitors to their website in November 2019 while also selling 1.6 million copies a day.
It all makes for an incredibly imbalanced and unhealthy coverage of football in Spain.
While it wouldn’t be totally accurate to label Bale as the victim in this scenario due to his antics of winding up Madrid, it’s important to acknowledge that when the media of the nation where you work (which is essentially the long arm of your employer) has you in their crosshairs on a daily basis, what’s created is a toxic environment that isn’t exactly a perfect one for you to work.
He might have won more trophies than Zinedine Zidane, better goals-per-game ratio than popular striker Raúl and amazingly provided more assists than David Beckham and yet, it is fair to say it hasn’t been a total success for Bale in the Spanish capital. Beyond the furore around his love for golf and the Madridistas distaste for him, the reason for Bale not achieving greatness boils down to pretty simple factors. The media coverage creating an impossible environment for any player to flourish, his sensationally bad injury record as previously mentioned and lastly, and possibly the most obvious, he has been played out of position for much of his playing time in Madrid as Jonathon Wilson again details here:
“As Ronaldo aged and stripped back his role back, so the opportunities for Bale to play as he had at Spurs became increasingly limited. What he needed was a 4-3-3 with a centre-forward who got out of the way, creating space for him to accelerate into. What he got was a 4-4-2 that generated much of its width from full-back and demanded a more patient technical style from its midfielders. In six years, Real have spent around £300m on Bale in transfer fee and wages and yet have almost never played him in the role in which he impressed them.”
Really, everything else surrounding his situation in Madrid is just noise. Gareth Bale just simply hasn’t fit into any of the tactics during his seven seasons, and he likely never will. His is a situation that perfectly encapsulates the absurdity of modern football, it might be a complicated story but it’s mostly just silly, and for all the bluster and outrage about his time in a Los Blancos shirt his supposed failure is really just down to footballing reasons.
Media. Injuries. Tactics. In that order.