A new era beckons at The Bernabue. Cristiano Ronaldo’s shadow no longer cloaks the dressing room and Zinedine Zidane, who led Los Blancos to three Champions Leagues, no longer stalks the side-lines. For one man, this marriage of absence has opened up a striking opportunity. Gareth Bale finally has the chance to become the leading man for the world’s biggest football club.
Though the Welshman has netted 70 goals in 126 appearances for Madrid, he has often been dismissed as little more than playing a supporting role – the Spanish press and the club’s supporters crafting that particular narrative.
Perhaps such disparaging outlooks are a product of Bale’s struggle to acclimatise to the culture and learn the language, but it would be churlish to invalidate suggestions that he has failed to live up to his potential as simply being petty accusations from media and fans alike. For although he is the most decorated and successful Welsh – and British – export, winning three European cups, two FIFA World Club cups, two UEFA Super Cups, one La Liga title and one Copa del Rey, his vast collection of silverware masks what has been an inconsistent five years in the capital.
Stick to the facts
It’s a fact worth noting that Bale has missed 100 games over the five years he has been at the club and that his success has been hampered by recurring injuries; had Bale remained injury free, it’s easy to see the forward surpassing the 100-goal mark for Madrid.
Indulging in the hypothetical is a risky business, however, and it is therefore more prudent to stick with the facts. Granted, Bale’s frequent niggles and strains has so far hamstrung his time in Spain, but the Welshman was eclipsed by Ronaldo simply because the latter was better.
Though it is not as reductive as this, Ronaldo was Madrid’s safety blanket, there to score important goals at important times and invariably rescue his side; Bale did score crucial goals, but not at the same rate that the Portuguese boasted. It was only natural, then, that the no.11 would cede authority to Ronaldo – his ego certainly played a part, but in pure footballing ability, the ex-Spurs player was no equal.
And as Bale weaponised his bicycle kick in last year’s Champions League Final as an ultimatum – give me game time or I’m going – it looked for all the world that he would end his Spanish odyssey. Yet surprisingly, the two factors that had contrived to restrict Bale’s playing time, both Zidane and Ronaldo, left. So, the attacker gets the chance he has craved since completing his £86 million switch from North London in 2013: to be the main man.
The goal-scoring fulcrum
Julen Lopetegui, the new Madrid boss, believes in the collective and would earnestly disagree with the sentiment of a leading part, but Bale will undoubtedly be fashioned into the goal-scoring fulcrum of Lopetegui’s side. This has been reinforced by the fact that Madrid have failed to recruit a ‘Galactico’ as it were, despite persistent rumours linking Eden Hazard, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe with the club.
The most salient difference between Bale and Ronaldo is the former’s humility. The boy from Cardiff who lives his dream rarely betrays his humble character, but this does not mean he will not relish being a protagonist. For Wales, he has adopted that role with enthusiasm, thriving in the responsibility placed upon his shoulders – his exploits in aiding Wales’ run to the semi-finals at Euro 2016 does not need reminding. There is little reason to believe he does not possess the ability to fill the void left by Ronaldo, but question marks linger regarding whether he can sustain himself for a full season.
Zidane’s European success has, to some extent, wrongly been attributed to fortune – patronised as someone who simply clapped his hands, rather than a manager who engineered Madrid’s recent hegemony. While this view is laughable, it is not condescending to suggest his teams lacked a cohesiveness or a consistent playing style.
A clear ideology
Zidane ensured his sides were solid and compact, which then provided a platform for moments of magic from his mercurial forwards. This is why he found it so hard to orchestrate more than one league triumph during his spell – his sole La Liga in 2016/17. Moments of brilliance are fine, but a side must have a defined philosophy if they are to win, week-in week-out.
Florentino Perez’s appointment of Lopetegui – who arrives with a very clear ideology – can be considered an effort to prioritise this elusive consistency in the hope of reasserting Madrid’s dominance on the domestic scene. Which brings us back to Bale, who can only realise his devasting potential if he remains fit. Injuries are often the fruit of unfortune, but he cannot burden himself with the capriciousness of fate.
Fortune favours the brave and Bale must be daring if he is to grasp his final chance to become Real Madrid’s main man.
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