The most successful British footballer of his era deserves better than the image of aloof corporate excellence he has exuded in Madrid, and still has time to add some deeper texture
At times it seems funny that we still call professional footballers “players”. Mischief, fun, mucking about: these are not the first qualities that spring to mind watching elite footballers at work, hyper-stressed, pattern-running units of human muscle, moving parts inside the world’s favourite leisure machine.
And yet playfulness remains the base note of all successful sport. No matter how much we mess around with the product, it is the human qualities that emerge through the bars.
Not just in the obvious ways. When someone such as Riyad Mahrez shuffles forward, so louche you expect to look down and notice he’s playing in a white tuxedo, bamboozling another defender with a sideways jink so widely advertised he may as well hire a plane and fly a banner over the ground with a sign saying “Mahrez Sideways Jink”, this is clearly pretty playful stuff.
But there is playfulness also in the interaction of systems, in the tactical chess of adjustment and readjustment. Plus of course we notice playfulness most when it has gone, when the note of joy disappears; and when the spectacle, no matter how glitzy, seems to lose its basic life-force.
At which point: enter Gareth Bale. This Saturday Real Madrid will play a Liga-defining clásico against Barcelona at the Bernabéu. Bale is likely to start on the bench again, kept out of the team by the teenaged Vinicius Junior, another low in an increasingly stretched and miserable few months.
Bale turns 30 this summer. As things stand the most successful British footballer of his generation faces a period of uncertainty, not to mention choices that will affect how a unique club career defines itself from here.
He is a fascinating figure in so many ways. Has there ever been a more oddly detached club footballing megastar? Has there been a more forgettable unforgettable career? Has there ever been a more bloodless full-blooded success, so frictionless the first stage in appreciating its majesty is to remind yourself it actually exists?
As of this season Bale has spent more time at Madrid than any other club. This is his football home, the place where he has burned through his best years. He has succeeded brilliantly too. Four Champions League winner’s medals make Bale the most successful British footballing export of all time.
Plus of course he’s is up there among the wealthiest active British sports stars, a top three that reads Rory McIlroy, Andy Murray and Bale – or two golfers and a tennis player, as the ever-catty Thibaut Courtois would probably put it.
Another good question these days is, why not? Because something has soured, or at least, a time of reckoning begun to approach. At which point it seems legitimate to ask if there isn’t just something missing here.
It is both sad and a little telling that some in Madrid would be happy to see him go. There has been an orchestrated note to the recent hostility in the media and closer to home. Bale is apparently called “the Martian” now by some of his teammates, a reference to his aloofness; to go with “the Golfer” as referenced by Courtois this week, tribute to Bale’s obsession with the sport, the time spent playing golf with his entourage from home, the replica professional course built in his garden.
This is all a little unnecessary. Bale is by all accounts a genuinely nice and humble superstar. He has been a brilliant player in brilliant patches, and a joyful one too. When he scored that goal in last year’s Champions League final, the kind of insanely staged overhead kick Pelé might score in some terrible 1970s American film about soccer, the reaction around me in the stadium was laughter. People cracked up, giggled, chortled at the sight of elite sport reduced to a playful absurdity.
Given the stage it remains the best single-touch goal anyone has ever scored. But it also feels instantly forgettable too, in the classic Bale style, the absence of anything sensual in what he does. This is a clean kind of sporting genius, a footballer as a machine made for winning.
If there is something missing in this superstar story, it is perhaps a little wildness, a little mud, some desperation. Bale has played the game brilliantly. But still no one really knows how good he could have been, what other gears he might have found in his peak club years with a little more emotional engagement.
The footballers you grow to really love, rather than admire as attractive high-grade celebrities, are the ones who lose themselves in the game and the team, win or lose. What is Gareth Bale for? In an ideal fantasy world he now would take a huge pay cut, go back to Tottenham and break his back trying to make them actually win something
This won’t happen, naturally. The numbers are all against it. From here Bale’s time with Wales will perhaps remain his best time, the place where he seemed to show himself most, a man lost in the game, and passionately eloquent away from the pitch. It is these moments when he simply looks like a player that will stand apart from corporate Bale, the invisible colossus who even now has time to add some deeper texture to all that controlled, surplus brilliance.