Ambition. A word the Oxford English Dictionary defines as ‘desire and determination to achieve success’. A necessary trait for any athlete who wishes to reach the pinnacle of their sport. An attribute which can distinguish between those who prosper and those who fail.
Gareth Bale is a man synonymous with the word ‘ambition’. Ten years ago, the Welshman was a wiry teenage left-back on the verge of making his professional debut for Southampton in the Championship. A decade later, there stands a powerful forward whose goal against Sevilla has crowned him as the leading British goalscorer in La Liga history.
Without ambition, there would be no records. Without ambition, there would be no Champions League trophy. Without ambition, there would be no ‘most expensive player in the world’ tag. Ambition led Bale from Cardiff Civil Service to Southampton to Tottenham to Real Madrid. Such a startling rise is almost taken for granted in the modern game.
The list of British players currently plying their trade abroad is hardly an inspiring one. Jermaine Pennant is enjoying a career twilight in Singapore. Nathan Eccleston swapped Liverpool for Hungary. Steven Fletcher, Ryan Gauld and Nathaniel Chalobah have all sought solace in Europe. Bale is undoubtedly the best of a mixed bunch.
“I’m amazed more players don’t go abroad and aren’t more ambitious,” said Jay Bothroyd last March. “I wish more players would move abroad as it improves you as a player tactically and opens your mind. There’s no doubt it pushes you as a player. It shows ambition.”
Whatever your views on Bothroyd, the striker has twice undertaken a bold career choice when presented with a far easier option. Upon leaving Coventry in 2003, the then 21-year-old boasted numerous suitors. He opted to join Serie A side Perugia. Ten years later, the England international moved to Thailand’s Muangthong United.
Having already played for eight clubs throughout the Football League, Bothroyd would have had no problem in finding another club in the Championship. Instead, he left his comfort zone behind, and now plays for Jubilo Iwata in Japan. Bale was not the only player concerned with British goalscoring records set abroad by Gary Lineker last weekend.
“The best foreign players come to the Premier League but time and again our best players turn down moves abroad,” Bothroyd said last year. It’s an intriguing argument. British players are often bemoaned for not taking the opportunity to play in foreign leagues.
“Notoriously, we don’t export our players often,” said Joe Cole, who spent nine months on loan at French side Lille. “It is a true test of your footballing ability and character,” said Joey Barton, who relished a season-long sojourn in Marseille. “I thought ‘you know what, everyone talks about English players not wanting to go abroad; I’m going to give it a go,'” said Micah Richards, who moved to Italy with Fiorentina for a year. None of the trio enjoyed great success in new surroundings, but should still be applauded for their ambition, not derided for struggling.
This is what makes Bale all the more impressive. The Welshman was 24 when he left Tottenham in the summer of 2013, already one of the Premier League’s best players. He could have stayed at White Hart Lane, breaking records, winning the odd trophy, becoming a club legend. Real Madrid provided the opportunity to challenge himself. Real Madrid presented a change of scenery, an alternative to his comfort zone. Real Madrid appealed to his ambition.
Why then do we expect Bale to return? The forward is a guaranteed starter at Real Madrid, a winner of the Champions League and Copa del Rey in his first season, and a Club World Cup and Super Cup in his second. A maiden La Liga title will not arrive this campaign – although another European title still might – thanks to the irresistible Barcelona, but that will merely strengthen Bale’s resolve to succeed in the Spanish capital in the coming years.
Do we yearn for Bale to come ‘home’ because the Premier League’s elite is the weakest in recent memory? British players choosing not to play abroad is often lamented, but when one becomes an inarguable success abroad, the first question is ‘When will you sign for Manchester United?’. The Premier League might need Gareth Bale, but Gareth Bale most certainly does not need the Premier League.
Bale has overcome numerous obstacles in under three years at the Bernabeu. The 26-year-old was serenaded by adoring Real fans on Sunday; he was jeered and whistled by the same support in December. He has shouldered the burden of a record transfer fee. He has dealt admirably with a Cristiano Ronaldo-shaped problem since his arrival. He has not achieved all this to climb down the ladder and return to the Premier League before he is ready.
A climbdown it would most certainly be. Lineker, whose 42 goals in 103 Barcelona games were finally eclipsed by Bale’s 43rd in 27 fewer matches on Sunday, said last week: “You can never be assured of any kind of great longevity at a club like Real Madrid whether you are a player or a manager, although generally the big players do tend to stay for a while, because if you go from there, it’s almost certainly a backward step.”
The Premier League is the new stomping ground for elite managers, but it is no longer the favoured destination for the game’s best players. Bale is in that category. Instead of speculating when he will return, instead of taking his talent for granted, instead of expecting him to show a distinct lack of ambition by departing for poorer sides, we should applaud and cherish him.