Welshman must score and defend if he wants to win friends in Madrid, says Richard Fitzpatrick
LAST Sunday, Gareth Bale scored a volley against relegation-zoned Levante in La Liga. It was his first goal for Real Madrid in ten games. During the drought, Real Madrid’s fans had turned on him.
Bale marked the goal by wheeling away with his hands covering his big ears. He wasn’t listening to their jeers any more. Once he reached the corner flag, he drew a boot at it, fists clenched, his face contorted in demented rage. The image adorned both cover pages of Madrid’s sports newspapers, AS and Marca, the following morning.
If Bale wasn’t entirely happy at scoring, neither was his team-mate, Cristiano Ronaldo. When Bale’s goal flew in, Ronaldo thrust his arm in the air in disgust. Spain’s TV and radio stations have pondered the gesture all week. More evidence, it seemed, about how marginalised Bale is in the Real Madrid dressing room. Marca reported the previous week that Bale has made “little effort to integrate with the group 20 months after his arrival”.
Gary Lineker marvelled at the Portuguese star’s childishness, tweeting: “Ronaldo’s extraordinarily stroppy reaction to Bale scoring from a rebound from his effort was bizarre and unhealthy.”
Ronaldo was subjected to more dismay before the half was out. Running on to a pullback in the box, he shot towards the opposite bottom corner of Levante’s goal. The ball took the slightest of deflections from Bale en route to the back of the net. While Ronaldo lapped up the applause of his team-mates, the goal was credited to Bale over the PA system. Parts of the Bernabéu stadium took to whistling the news.
Bale is in a tricky spot ahead of tonight’s El Clasico clash with Barcelona. Before the Levante match, his coach Carlo Ancelotti told staff at Real Madrid it was getting harder and harder to justify Bale’s inclusion in the side. He was bought for ¤100 million to score goals. Yet he hadn’t scored in nine games.
Bale has been shoehorned into the team’s starting XI. Ancelotti’s team is more effective with a 4-4-2 rather than fitting Bale into a 4-3-3 line-up. Critics stress that, since his arrival in the summer of 2013, it is no coincidence Real Madrid’s most fluent passage of play occurred in 2014 when he was out injured.
His biggest sin in the eyes of Real Madrid’s fans is he won’t defend. The Bernabéu loves a luchador, a fighter, above all other traits. When Real Madrid lost 1-0 to Athletic Bilbao earlier in the month, Bale ignored orders from his bench to track back. “He doesn’t defend because he doesn’t want to,” one of his team-mates muttered anonymously to the press.
After a triumphant 2014 in which Real won the Champions League, the club have been in free-fall. Having led the league by four points a few weeks ago, they were leapfrogged by Barça, who lead by a point. They tumbled out of the Copa del Rey to Atlético Madrid and last month also got filleted 4-0 in the league to their city rivals. In the latest round of the Champions League, they only scraped past Schalke, 5-4 on aggregate, having lost the home tie, a game in which Real Madrid’s fans fluttered their hankies disdainfully at Bale, a practice borrowed from bullfighting. They have been drawn to meet Atlético in the quarter-finals of the Champions League in a repeat of last season’s final.
Bale is a convenient scapegoat for Real Madrid’s troubles. He has, however, one important ally in the Spanish capital – the club’s president, Florentino Pérez. To understand Real Madrid, you must follow the movements of this man.
Pérez, or Florentino as he is known in Spain, is el faro, the fan’s lighthouse at Real Madrid. They look to him for guidance. TV cameras linger on his face during matches. People rush to get his autograph. He is one of the five most powerful men in Spain, on a footing with the chairman of Santander bank and the country’s prime minister. He is dismissive of managers. He never spoke to Manuel Pellegrini after August during the Chilean’s year in charge at Real Madrid in 2009-10.
Footballers have long been referred to as pieces of meat. Pérez, though, put a new spin on their commoditisation. When he became president of Real Madrid in 2000, he started an audacious galáctico policy where he signed the world’s best player every summer, including Zinedine Zidane, the Brazilian Ronaldo, his Portuguese namesake, and, of course, Bale, the world’s most expensive player.
Pérez wants to create ilusión, or excitement and a sense of wonder, for Real Madrid fans. The signing of David Beckham in 2003 – when the club eschewed the chance to sign Ronaldinho because he was too “ugly” – was a new departure. Pérez recognised the superior marketing potential of Beckham even though he wasn’t a world-class player. It was part of his voodoo economics. His commercial approach has been vindicated. Real Madrid has been the world’s richest club, according to the annual Deloitte Money League, for the past decade.
His football decisions have been contentious, though. Last week, he delivered an unscheduled, televised press conference. He was in a grumpy mood. He attacked the press for its “lies”. It had an “agenda” against Real Madrid, he claimed. “Much of the media is Madridista, but not all of it,” he said, almost in disbelief. He is a man who is used to getting his own way. In a slip of the tongue, he spoke about the moment when he, the autocrat, brought the Welsh winger to the club. “When I signed Bale,” he said, before adjusting his tongue: “when we signed Bale…”
When pushed, he backed Ancelotti, but observers know these endorsements carry little weight. Pérez once went through seven coaches in a three-year period. Marca reports Ancelotti will get the sack if there is another “debacle” when Real Madrid plays Barça away tonight. It’s more likely he will limp on until the end of the season, especially as Real Madrid are still in the Champions League.
Pérez defended Bale by citing the crucial goals he has scored for the club, including last year’s decisive goal in the Champions League final and a galloping goal of genius against Barcelona in the final of the Copa del Rey. Bale would do his prospects at the club considerable good if he were to score another golazo like it at the Camp Nou.