Gareth Bale: I'm happy at Real Madrid... for now
Gareth Bale has learnt Real Madrid politics the hard way – like all outsiders – and was careful to insert “at the moment” into his answer to a question about whether he is happy at the Bernabéu. It was a power play to go with this sensational hat-trick in a 5-0 victory on the night of Zinedine Zidane’s first match in charge.
When Bale wandered over with the match ball signed by his team-mates under his arm, he was clear about his position in the Real hierarchy. He wants to be allowed to roam through the middle in games; was upset by Rafa Benítez’s sacking but accepts it now; and claims to have no interest in the Fifa Ballon d’Or that Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi will fight over on Monday in Zurich.
“Individual awards – I don’t think about them at all, they’re nothing that I want to think about. It’s for other people to sort out themselves,” Bale said, in a remark that will be interpreted as a sideswipe at Ronaldo, who is obsessed with his personal duel with Messi. Bale went on: “For me, I just want to work hard for the team and try to win as many titles as I can.”
A hat-trick in a game against Deportivo La Coruña, in which Ronaldo failed to score, and a high five from Zidane as he left the pitch, may well be a turning point for Bale in his struggle to match the political power of ‘CR7’, a three-time world player of the year.
The belief in Madrid is that either Bale or Ronaldo will leave the club this summer, but the hot favourite to go is Ronaldo, who is 31 next month. So with Zidane replacing Benítez, Bale’s camp were bound to use this transition phase to press their hope that their man will finally become the star of the team.
Everything Bale said after an emotional return to front-line action for Zidane points this way. With Benítez gone, and Zidane taking steps to reassure him about his role, would Bale now settle down for the long-haul in Madrid? “I’m happy at the moment,” he said. “You can never predict what happens in the future, but I’m enjoying my football at the moment so I’ll keep going.”
As a boy Bale watched Zidane in his pomp and remembers his new manager’s volley-of-a-lifetime in the 2002 Champions League final. “You don’t forget that,” he said. “He’s a legend, not just of the club but world football.”
And while Zidane is asking for a level of defensive commitment and team unity that may be alien to some of these household names, Bale has clearly caught the new mood in the camp and was eager to show willing. Last week Zidane promised Bale “the same affection” he was shown by Benítez. And Bale now says: “Obviously that was nice of him to say. We had a chat when he first came in. And no matter what, I’ll give 100 per cent on the football pitch. That’s what I did tonight.”
His most memorable performance in a Madrid shirt was in the Decima-completing Champions League win of 2014 – but this was arguably his most impressive. “I’m not too sure to be honest, it’s for other people to comment on,” he said. “I feel good at the moment. I feel very fit and I’m just trying to enjoy my football.”
If he was aggrieved about Benítez’s dismissal, Bale is seizing the chance extended to him last week by Zidane. “I had a very good relationship with Rafa,” he says. “Obviously it was a bit disappointing to see him go but things like this happen in football and you’re professional, you get on with it and you carry on.”
Naturally he denies trying to make a statement to Zidane but that was the way it seemed from the stands as he struck with two headers and a clipped finish from a Ronaldo cross, with Karim Benzema scoring the other two: “I don’t feel I need to make a statement to anyone, I know what I’m capable of, and I just want to keep on enjoying my football. When I do that I play my best football.”
Some in Madrid think it impertinent that Bale has pushed for a central role. They ignore the reality that players who fail to stand up for themselves in this intensely political environment tend to be trampled on. His journey from the wing to a central striking position began at Spurs so he was hardly likely to surrender that ambition in his prime, even with Ronaldo and Benzema to consider. Bale says: “There have been comments in previous interviews where I’ve been ‘stuck on the right’ and maybe didn’t have that freedom, but now I’m able to come in and float around a bit as well. My main position would be on the right, obviously. I’m enjoying my football and my position very much.”
His touchline hugging days are over. “Definitely. My best position is being able to roam around the front and find weaknesses in their defence. Everybody knows where I like to play and what I like to do on the pitch so hopefully I can keep doing that.”
At the same time Zidane is trying to engineer a change away from individualism in favour of a stronger team mentality. “I think the thing we can improve is to put more pressure on the opposition when they have the ball,” he said.
“Their attitude has been very good. In the week that we’ve had, the players have wanted to come forward and do their very best for the team. It’s not a change I can make myself, it’s a change the players need to make themselves. What I can hammer into the team is that hard work ethic.”
Bale looks ready for that, but also sounds eager to finally escape Ronaldo’s shadow. Even as Zidane forges unity, he will have to manage this struggle between two stellar talents.