PETE JENSON: Real Madrid criticism never seemed to bother Gareth Bale

PETE JENSON: Gareth Bale failed to win over Real Madrid fans despite some breathtaking moments, but the criticism never seemed to bother him. The Welshman was thick skinned – and probably because his record speaks for itself

  • Gareth Bale announced his retirement from football at the age of 33 on Monday
  • Bale provided a number of big moments in crucial games as a Real Madrid player
  • His winning goal in their 2014 Spanish Cup final win summed up his brilliance
  • But even that extraordinary strike didn’t truly win over Madrid’s supporters
  • The club’s fans often accused Bale of going missing in bread and butter games 
  • Holding a banner suggesting he preferred golf to Madrid didn’t help matters
  • However, Bale never seemed to care about the criticism during his time in Spain 
  • The Welshman was perhaps unfazed because of how successful he was for Real

Gareth Bale’s brilliance will always be best summed up by one goal – and it isn’t that extraordinary volley past Liverpool keeper Loris Karius in the 2018 Champions League final.

I was at the Spanish Cup final in 2014, and like most of the main stand, briefly lost sight of the Cardiff Express as he ran off the pitch and then back on to it in order to sprint past Barcelona defender Marc Bartra and score the winner five minutes from time.

That was his night. He was up against Neymar who had been Barcelona’s big signing the previous summer. It was a ‘Clasico’ but with a difference because in a neutral venue the stadium was split with each of the Spanish giants filling half of the old 55,000 concrete bowl.

Gareth Bale’s extraordinary strike in the 2014 Copa del Rey final best sums up his brilliance

The former Real Madrid star announced his retirement from football at 33 on Monday

With Cristiano Ronaldo injured the emphasis more than ever was on Bale to deliver and he did, at the death, with a goal that even Ronaldo probably wouldn’t have scored.

The Portuguese was soon on the pitch at the final whistle with then Real Madrid assistant coach Zinedine Zidane to celebrate with Bale. It was the 20th goal for him that season and he had answered the critics who had voiced doubts about him earlier in that first campaign.

Only at Real Madrid was that extraordinary goal, in a cup final, against the club’s biggest rivals, not enough to make him a favourite adopted son for life.

At times his critics in Madrid moaned that he was only ever about ‘moments’, and that in the bread and butter games of too many seasons his was an injury-interrupted contribution. But moments win finals and make memories and Bale’s catalogue of jaw-droppers was more extensive than most.

Bale provided a number of big moments in some crucial games over the years for Madrid

His overhead kick in the 2018 Champions League final was another example of his magic

But Madrid fans never warmed to Bale and often accused him of only providing ‘moments’

There’s the volley in Kiev, the header in Lisbon when he put Real Madrid ahead for the first time in the 2014 Champions League final. And his walk to the penalty spot in the shoot-out in the 2016 final in Milan when he had run himself into the ground and could barely make it to the area but summoned the strength to send the ball past Jan Oblak from the spot.

Off the pitch he was a one-off too. I was never entirely sure if the fact that so many Madrid supporters did not take him to heart was something that he didn’t fully realize, or just didn’t care about.

The ‘Wales, Golf, Madrid, in that order’ flag message was inspired by a criticism of him by former Madrid player Predrag Mijatovic. It got a lot of laughs… albeit in Barcelona where having won so much with Madrid Bale bizarrely managed to earn a cult following for his complete indifference to those who wanted him gone at Madrid.

The Wales bit the Madrid supporters might have understood, but golf? Thibaut Courtois let slip in one interview that he went by the nickname ‘The Golfer’ in the dressing room and Bale lived up to the moniker when he tweeted about the US Open during the presentation of Eden Hazard. Again was he unaware, or did he just not care?

Bale’s notorious love for playing golf was also mocked during his nine-year spell in Spain

When they began to whistle him during matches it did start to affect him. Jeering him in the stadium when his name was announced at the start of games had became part of the pre-match entertainment for some supporters but the abuse reached surreal levels when in one game he was whistled while playing an assist just before Madrid scored. No one else got treated that way.

But Bale’s resilience in the face of efforts to get him out of the club never weakened. Coach Zidane wanted him sold after his wonder goal in Kiev but he had no intention of leaving and in end it was Zidane who left the club.

When Zidane came back as coach for a second time relations with Bale did not improve. ‘If he can leave tomorrow then even better’, Zidane said in press conference in July 2019 when it seemed a move to China was imminent. Ultimately Madrid pulled back from letting him leave on what would have been a free to Jiangsu Suning.

In the end even President Florentino Perez had become pro-Bale leaving. The pandemic wiped a fortune off of Madrid’s income and they belatedly saw what a mistake it had been to give him another new contract in 2017 that kept him at the club – on 19m euros net a season – until 2022.

He never seemed fazed by the criticism, perhaps because his record speaks for itself

Bale still didn’t blink. When he was left watching from the dug-out as an unused sub and television cameras honed in on him pretending to sleep, or looking through a pair of imaginary binoculars club dignitaries such as Jorge Valdano tut-tutted: ‘Bale is playing around. Madrid is not a game’. But he didn’t care.

Other players have been forced out over the years but he carried on regardless in the face of campaigns that made him the bad guy in everything from Zidane’s departure to the club’s failure to sign Kylian Mbappe while he was still at Monaco.

Thick-skinned off the pitch and blessed with a rare combination of power and poise on it, he was an extraordinary footballer. And that goal in Mestalla seven years ago will make even some of his critics at Madrid smile when trophyless seasons come, as they do for all clubs, even Madrid.

To run that far, that fast, that late in the game was one thing, but to then to be able to slam on the brakes and put the ball past the goalkeeper so coolly was another entirely.

His prints were on that cup, on three of the Champions Leagues that Madrid won, and on an impressive four World Club Cups. Perhaps that’s why the criticism never seemed to bother him – the record speaks for itself.

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