The date is 26th May 2018. It is a warm night in Kyiv, Ukraine, where the UEFA Champions League final between Real Madrid and Liverpool is taking place. The scores are evenly poised at 1-1. 61 minutes into the game, Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane turns to his bench and beckons for Gareth Bale. Three minutes later, Gareth Bale is sliding past the corner flag in celebration, having scored one of the greatest Champions League goals of all-time… It makes you wonder, as the Welshman created a moment in history, was golf on his mind?
For a man so deeply embedded in the recent history of Los Blancos, a dark shadow loomed over the head of Cardiff’s favourite son during his time in the Spanish capital. Bale’s allegiances, priorities and integrity were constantly questioned. So, should this “parasite” be remembered as such, or was the Welshman’s time at Real Madrid simply misunderstood?
Having been accused of putting Wales – and golf – over Real Madrid, Gareth Bale’s relationship with the Spanish media has often been strained and fragile at best. At its worst, this relationship has been vitriolic and personal. But is Bale blameless? Does the “parasite” comment hold weight?
Writing for the newspaper Marca in March 2022, columnist Manuel Julia Dorado stated: “He (Bale) settled in Spain, at Real Madrid, where, masked, he first showed diligence and love for the guest, but then his nature led him to suck blood without giving anything in return.
“Well, more than blood, he sucked, and sucks, the club’s euros.
“Unlike others of its kind, such as the flea, the louse or the bedbug, the Bale parasite does not cause itching or illnesses in its host, but after sucking, it laughs and makes fun of it, showing a jocular contempt for the one from whom he lives.”
Bitter, spiteful and scathing, Dorado’s words require context to be fully understood. Fans and pundits alike in Madrid often questioned Bale’s dedication to the club compared to his passion and commitment to Wales. Bale journeyed off during the international break to represent the Welsh national side when he had seemingly been ‘injured’ or lacking fitness in the Spanish capital. However, managers often overlooked Bale, and he was not given significant game time in the famous white of the Galacticos.
Rewinding to the start of Bale’s Real Madrid career, fitness problems diminished the excitement and acted as a catalyst for media resentment. Distinguished journalist Santiago Segurola went as far as to write in Marca: “Bale doesn’t know how to play football. He only knows how to run.”
Fast forward to the end of his debut season, and the script had flipped. Bale finished the season as the protagonist and hero, scoring a wonder goal to beat Barcelona in the final of the Copa del Rey and heading home a crucial second in the Champions League final against city rivals Atletico for Real’s 10th European Cup success. Bale was, in his own words, making a “dream come true”.
However, nine years on, does Bale still think his time at Madrid was a dream come true? Penning an open letter upon his exit from the Santiago Bernabeu, Bale said: “I arrived here nine years ago as a young man who wanted to realise my dream of playing for Real Madrid… I can now look back, reflect and say with honesty that this dream became a reality.” But even the best dreams can be disrupted and disturbed.
For Gareth Bale, these disruptions often manifested themselves as injuries. According to Transfermarkt – excluding Gareth Bale’s season-long loan return to Tottenham, the Welshman missed 594 days due to injury during his Real Madrid tenure. These 594 days resulted in 128 missed games.
When you contextualise Bale’s injury history, the former most expensive player in the world missed the equivalent of more than three full La Liga seasons – here is where the Spanish media have problems with the Wales captain. Reaching a fever pitch in March 2022, the media accused Bale of faking a back injury.
After sitting out of a humiliating 4-0 defeat to El Clasico rivals Barcelona, Gareth Bale scored two goals against Austria to send Wales to a World Cup Playoff Final four days later. Diario AS Editor-in-Chief Tomas Roncero responded with the headline: “Bale. Go. Home. Now. In that order”, before lambasting Bale for leaving Real Madrid stranded after alluding to a fake back injury. Bale, often silent in the face of criticism, responded that the Spanish media should “all be ashamed of themselves.”
Was Gareth Bale a “parasite” in Madrid? That seems a stretch. Was Bale blameless in the face of media criticism? No, probably not.
That famous night in Kyiv, a second Bale goal wrapped up a 3-1 victory and sealed Real Madrid’s 13th Champions League triumph. But, after the game in which he had become the hero, the Welshman remained less than enthused in Madrid.
“I need to be playing week in, week out and that has not happened this season,” said Bale post-game – but why had that not happened? Was Bale’s chequered injury history at fault? Was the manager not convinced by the forward? Were there just better players ahead of him? When a club had spent over £85million on you, these questions needed to be answered.
That price tag loomed over Gareth Bale’s head like an albatross in Madrid, like the Sword of Damocles, like an ominous grey cloud over the South Wales Valleys. A world-record transfer fee sets lofty, almost unattainable expectations. Thus, if the expectations are so high, can anyone live up to them? Was Gareth Bale a ‘flop’ because he didn’t become another Cristiano Ronaldo? That said, should Ronaldo even be the point of comparison?
In the summer of 2013, two high-profile transfers stole the headlines. Gareth Bale moved to the Spanish capital, whilst Barcelona stumped up 86million euros for Brazilian sensation Neymar Jr. Mercurial talents in their own rights. Still, neither player was signed to become the immediate franchise player at their respective clubs – Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi were well cemented in that role. Instead, Bale and Neymar were brought in to become understudies to the leading men; they were brought in to play a vital, albeit, supporting role.
Bale and Neymar had the potential to become superstars. In fact, some may have argued Bale was already there. But both moved in search of success, fame and trophies. For Gareth Bale, the hunt for trophies had been futile in North London. Therefore winning silverware for Los Blancos would be his way of cementing his place in footballing folklore. As they say in American sports, you’re not a legend unless you have a ring.
As aforementioned, Bale had a debut season to remember in Madrid, scoring an extraordinary solo effort to down Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final and his extra-time winner to seal La Decima against Atletico in Lisbon. These moments should have been the first chapter in the story of Gareth Bale’s successful Spanish adventure, but the remaining chapters were yet to be written.
Initially spurred on by the positivity of the first chapter, chapter two ultimately required a rewrite. You could even say it was an early plot twist. Bale’s second season saw a dip in his form coinciding with Real Madrid’s failure to win any silverware. But there was something more concerning in the offing.
It all started against Espanyol. Racing clear on goal, Bale opted to go it alone rather than tee up Cristiano Ronaldo for a simple finish. Bale missed, Ronaldo was furious, and the Bernabeu crowd turned on the Welshman. Jeers poured down every time Bale touched the ball for the rest of the game. Despite assisting and scoring in the same game, the Real Madrid faithful had shown their true colours – Bale was not above criticism, and the fans would always demand more.
Manager Carlo Ancelotti said: “Bale is a fundamental player for us, like Cristiano. So, the fans demand more than others. That is normal, and fair, to me.” However, regardless of how fair it was, this fracturing of the Bale-Bernabeu relationship would prove to be a catalyst for further criticism.
It is under this spotlight that one must look at Gareth Bale’s time at Real Madrid. Whilst it is easy to list Gareth Bale’s accolades – and this is coming – the extra attention and scrutiny of the Welshman were arguably not misplaced. Bale may well have been brought in to support Cristiano Ronaldo, but when you join a club for such a fee, under such a spotlight, under such fanfare, you are expected to be a perennial game-changer.
So, how successful was Gareth Bale at Real Madrid:
5 Champions Leagues
4 Club World Cups
3 UEFA Super Cups
3 La Liga Titles
3 Spanish Super Cups
1 Copa del Rey
Yes, Bale collected 19 trophies during his time with Los Blancos. Additionally, according to Transfermarkt, in 256 games, Bale scored 106 goals and racked up 66 assists. That is a goal every 2.5 games, with a goal contribution every 1.5 games. Those figures are impressive, but when contextualised, they are exceptional.
Bale won more trophies for Real Madrid than Cristiano Ronaldo. More trophies than Ronaldo Nazario, Luis Figo and Zinedine Zidane combined. Bale scored more goals than Ronaldo Nazario, assisted more goals than David Beckham, and had a better goals contribution ratio than Ronaldo Nazario, Figo and Zidane. In terms of legendary status, Bale’s statistics are remarkable – yet many still see Bale as somewhat of a failure at Real Madrid.
When establishing whether Gareth Bale was a ‘flop’ in Madrid, one must first establish the definition of that label and the parameters by which it is measured. Given its subjective nature, that is nigh on impossible. Instead, Bale’s Real Madrid tenure sits in a form of limbo. For all his successes, there are those whose expectations were still not met. For all his foibles, Bale’s accolades are almost incomparable. This begs the question, was Gareth Bale just misunderstood in the Spanish capital?
When Gareth Bale’s 9-year stay in Madrid came to an end this summer, it had become fairly tumultuous. His relationship with the fans and the media continued to worsen by the day. So, following these heavy criticisms, Bale opted to move to LAFC.
However, as this new chapter began, Bale ended his previous fight by aiming a final jab before the bell at the Spanish media that had lambasted him and plagued his time in Spain. And how he did this can be regarded as petty, hilarious, ingenious or disrespectful. It just depends on which side you sit on.
A frequent complaint levied at the Welshman in Madrid was his inability – or refusal – to speak Spanish to the press. However, upon his arrival in Los Angeles, Bale’s first port of call was to speak in perfect Spanish to the awaiting camera. A simple case of trolling? Maybe. But this incident may help shed light on how Bale was judged and understood in Madrid.
Bale was accused of being selfish, faking injuries and lacking dedication. These accusations were further amplified by Bale’s estimated £600,000 a week wages. But were such accusations warranted? Did Gareth Bale fuel the proverbial fire?
A prime example of the latter can be found in Los Blancos’ 2-0 win over Levante in 2015. Now accustomed to the boos and jeers from his own team’s supporters, Bale netted both goals and proceeded to celebrate by covering his ears with his hands. Bale was literally blocking out the Madrid faithful.
And then there’s golf. A sport now so negatively ingrained in the mind of Madrid’s media and fans. A sport that fed the furore around Gareth Bale. A sport that became Bale’s ultimate trolling weapon.
It would be foolish to start this topic without looking at the now infamous flag. Yes, you know which flag.
The former Real Madrid player and Sporting Director, Pedja Mijatovic, made the opening salvo in this tale. Claiming he had not spoken to Gareth Bale but believed his priorities were “Wales, golf, and Madrid – and in that order”, Mijatovic had clearly not considered the passion, creativity and mockery by which Welsh football fans operate. What followed is now etched in history.
Dancing, smiling and making no attempt to escape, Gareth Bale celebrated reaching the 2020 European Championships by standing behind a flag that read “Wales, Golf, Madrid. In that order”. Almost as if those words were emblazoned across his chest, Bale was well-aware that the absurdity and triviality of the situation would not translate well in Madrid.
Josep Pedrerol, a presenter of El Chiringuito TV, heatedly and indignantly directed his views down the camera lens straight to Real Madrid President Florentino Perez: “Florentino, get Bale Out.”
El Chiringuito TV dedicated the majority of their show to the incident. Guests took turns to condemn and criticise Bale, referring to Bale’s “campaign” to leave Real Madrid and speaking of the shame of him being part of the club. However, a few days later, Pedrerol’s tune had changed: “Zidane, for the good of Real Madrid, you need to get Bale back on board.”
Whilst the hysteria surrounding the flag is well known, Bale’s affection for golf has long been a point of contention in Madrid. However, with the media accusing Bale of prioritising golf ahead of Real Madrid, the Welshman could have dampened this speculation – Bale did the opposite. Whether posing for squad photos by mimicking a golf swing, using his leg as a putter at training, playing golf when too “unwell” to travel for a preseason tournament or jovially standing behind the aforementioned flag, Gareth Bale has embraced the criticism.
It is this which makes Bale a uniquely polarising character in the Spanish capital. Being part of one of the most successful eras in Real Madrid’s history, Bale should be held up as an eternal legend and icon. But his injury history, pettiness and a fractured relationship with the media and fans hinder this.
Was Gareth Bale a misused, misunderstood and misjudged talent in Madrid? Was Bale blameless in the face of a biased media vendetta against him? Was Bale merely an innocent scapegoat? Or was Bale completely understood and perceived the way he wanted to be?
Again, the answer is likely somewhere in the middle of that cluster of questions. Gareth Bale’s talent shone on countless occasions at Real Madrid, but so did his attitude. Gareth Bale’s success was almost unparalleled at Real Madrid, but so was the perception of him.
There is no definitive answer as to whether Bale was a parasite at Real Madrid. There is no definitive answer as to whether Bale was a flop at Real Madrid. There is no definitive answer as to whether Bale was misunderstood at Real Madrid. And that is likely precisely what the Welshman wants.