Since Gareth Bale joined Real Madrid for a then world record, now comparatively modest fee of £85.3m in 2013, he has endured a somewhat uneasy relationship with the fans and media.
While his time in Spain has coincided with a period of massive success for the club, to which Bale has been a huge contributor, fans and pundits alike have been quick to criticise him when things haven’t gone well.
Not for the first time in his Real Madrid career, he was subjected to boos and whistles from the Bernabéu crowd as he was substituted during the 2-2 draw with Valencia on Sunday.
Although he did struggle to make an impact on the game, missing one particularly good chance, he was by no means the worst offender on the day. Karim Benzema missed several great goalscoring opportunities, and he may well have received the same reaction from the fans had he been substituted, but it was Bale who was sacrificed and left to bear brunt of the fans’ frustration.
Admittedly, the Madrid fans are notoriously hard to please, and a section of their support even booed Cristiano Ronaldo last season. The fact that a man who has scored a frankly ludicrous 285 goals in 265 league games for the club is not above abuse from the crowd tells you everything you need to know about the weight of expectation on Real Madrid’s players.
But while other Madrid players have occasionally been on the end of negative crowd reactions, there is almost a sense that they are waiting for Bale to fail.
There are a number of factors that may have contributed to this. Madrid fans may have expected a Ronaldo-esque level of goals and assists given the price paid for Bale, and while his record of a goal every other game for Madrid is excellent when judged by normal standards, Ronaldo’s almost superhuman goalscoring achievements put it very much in the shade.
As well as this, there is a feeling that Bale hasn’t fully embraced the club and the Spanish way of life, so the fans find it harder to take him to their hearts. The media criticise him for his lack of fluency in Spanish, and as a result he is painted as something of an outsider. Every fan loves a homegrown hero, so the fact that he is in direct competition for a starting place with two Spanish fan favourites, Isco and Marco Asensio, makes it even harder for him to win the supporters’ love.
In spite of all that, it seems Bale himself is enjoying life in Spain, and he has said himself that he is happy in Madrid and would consider a return to England to be a step down. Given that he has won the Champions League three times in his four years in the Spanish capital, it’s hard to disagree with him on that.
But that hasn’t stopped the British press crusading for him to return to these shores, with near constant rumours of a move to Manchester United. Although it would be foolish to rule anything out in the last two days of the transfer window, it seems very unlikely that Bale will leave. He is under contract until 2022, and Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane has repeatedly backed him in public.
On top of that, with attackers Álvaro Morata and James Rodríguez having already departed this summer, Zidane would be reluctant to lose another forward. Although Madrid’s attacking pantry is well-stocked, particularly with the emergence of Asensio, the key to the Zidane’s success so far has been the depth of his squad and his ability to rotate.
If Madrid had been successful in their pursuit of Monaco’s Kylian Mbappé, then perhaps Bale may have been surplus to requirements, but the Frenchman’s imminent move to Paris Saint-Germain means that he will continue to be an important member of the squad.
In many ways, now would be a good time for Bale to return to England. There would be no shortage of suitors, and he would get an easy ride from the British press, the adoration of the fans and could step out of Ronaldo’s considerable shadow once and for all. But the fact that he wants to stay in Spain says a lot about his character. It speaks of a man who wants to continue to improve as a player, prove his doubters wrong and keep winning trophies with one of the world’s biggest clubs.
Bale’s tenacity deserves great praise, but it will be his performances on the pitch that hold the key to capturing the hearts and minds of the Madrid faithful.