The reception Gareth Bale received when called off the bench in his hometown was rapturous. His name isn’t out of place alongside Welsh sporting greats such as rugby scrum-half Gareth Edwards, boxer Joe Calzaghe, hurdler Colin Jackson, and Manchester United legend Ryan Giggs, so the scene was set for a popular Cardiff cameo in Saturday’s Champions League final.
By that time, an enthralling watch had tumbled into a formality. The titans of Real Madrid were already 3-1 up when Bale was introduced, as Juventus fruitlessly scrambled after overhit passes or, in the case of Juan Cuadrado, fell victim to the petty play acting of Sergio Ramos.
Cristiano Ronaldo happily took the part of protagonist with a brace, Ramos revelled in his role as the antagonist, and Marco Asensio ensured the script ended with a bang in the dying moments. It left Bale as a celebrated stage hand in his native land’s capital.
Related – Defend the crown: Real Madrid defeats Juventus to claim 12th European Cup
But Bale isn’t a flashy celebrity. While Ronaldo’s shiny face seems to be stretched across every aftershave advertisement, and his naked torso appears resplendent above his seductive trot in many on-screen commercials, the Welshman lives a rather sedate tight-knit family life in Madrid.
In the unforgiving Galactico world of glittery Real Madrid, this has perhaps been to his detriment.
(Photo courtesy: Action Images)
His lacking command of the Spanish language has been derided in the country’s publications – he’s understood, but then nit-picked about his struggles to get his mouth around the accent’s nuances. An update on his adopted tongue before last year’s Champions League win didn’t provide much to dispel reports of his wanting proficiency either, nor his apparent inability to coalesce with the first-team squad.
“I’m happy here, I’m enjoying my football, I feel like I’m learning the culture, the language, I feel more integrated in the team now,” he said, as reported by ESPN FC’s Dermot Corrigan, in May of last year.
He added: “I’m happy – coming to another country is difficult, especially for the British people. I feel like it has taken time to settle in and learn the language.”
For a newcomer, Bale’s been granted ample time to settle in.
Now-Juventus midfielder Sami Khedira and Mesut Ozil’s supposedly novice Spanish was held responsible by locals for deficient communication in Jose Mourinho’s Real Madrid side of 2010. Khedira had been with Los Blancos for eight weeks, and Ozil for five.
“We understand in part the instructions of Mourinho,” he told Marca after a 3-0 defeat of Espanyol. “If there’s any problems, we use English, which is the language that dominates most players. However, Ozil and I are working very hard to learn Spanish.”
After four years, Bale’s apparently poor Spanish has long tested the patience of those on the Iberian peninsula. Despite some memorable contributions for Real Madrid, he remains an outsider.
Not being able to assimilate overseas is nothing new – Liverpool and Welsh icon Ian Rush, who handed over the trophy in the weekend’s meeting, toiled at Juventus – but Bale is also victim to a system employed by Zinedine Zidane which harks back to his own days spearheading Real Madrid’s midfield.
Zidane has shown tactical adaptability following the ex-Tottenham Hotspur winger’s injury problems. He flitted through the 4-3-3 with its famed triumvirate of Karim Benzema, Bale, and Ronaldo, and then a 4-4-2, before warping the midfield shape into a diamond. It mirrors the 2002 Champions League-winning Los Blancos under Vicente del Bosque, and, with attacking emphasis down the flanks handed to the full-backs rather than Bale or reinvented No. 9 Ronaldo, the French idol has passed his baton from 15 years ago to Isco.
A heavy rotation policy is in effect at the Bernabeu, but for Bale to re-establish a regular starting berth in the capital could be beyond him. Isco is a fan favourite – even though he has a pet Labrador named after Lionel Messi. Supporters have embraced his hard work and patience to earn a regular starting XI berth and the No. 10 role he craved. He’s been a darling of the Spanish press in recent months, and his starring role in pivotal matches – including his vital away goal against Atletico Madrid in the semi-finals, and stunning pass for Ronaldo in the title-clinching victory in Malaga – did him no harm.
James Rodriguez is done at Real Madrid – he wasn’t in the squad at all in Cardiff – but Asensio will expect more minutes next term, and Alvaro Morata and Lucas Vazquez impressed when called upon. The man who was the world’s most expensive footballer when he moved to Madrid in 2013 is being crowded out in a stacked squad and new tactical setup.
Signing off in front of his adoring Welsh fans and with a third Champions League winners medal dangling around his neck would be fitting. Bale has made the jump that so many Brits haven’t had the ambition or bravery to make by going overseas, and his silverware is proof that his Spanish stay is a success.
Nevertheless, a player of this repute cannot be surpassed by 25-year-old Isco and Asensio, 21, when he is only 27 himself. Real Madrid is reportedly keen on opening talks with Manchester United over a potential transfer, and Bale’s interest should be piqued by a considerable challenge in his next career jaunt: to bring the Red Devils back to the forefront of the continental game, and to establish himself as the greatest Welsh footballer above Old Trafford luminary Giggs.