As boos and whistles rained down from tens of thousands of Catalans at the Camp Nou on Sunday evening, El Clasico must have felt just like a home match for Gareth Bale.
The most expensive footballer in history woke up Monday to his image on the front page of Madrid-based sports newspaper Marca under the headline "forgiven too much."
It is meant as a criticism for the whole Real Madrid side after its 2-1 defeat to Barcelona, but Bale is clearly the prime target after his worst display since joining the Spanish giants. His 40 touches and 28 passes — just 57 percent of which found their target — were fewer than any other outfield player who started the match, and Bale will no doubt face the brunt of the criticism from fans and media in the postmortem.
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It has been a familiar theme this season, his decisive Copa Del Rey and UEFA Champions League final strikes in 2014 swiftly forgotten by the demanding Madrid public amid accusations of selfishness and a lack of workrate. Suggestions that Bale has such an ego will confuse those who know him. The Welshman has always been considered a humble "home boy" and one of the main concerns when he moved to the Santiago Bernabeu was whether he had the force of personality to play in the same manner for Real Madrid as he had for Tottenham.
Bale wants to stay in the Spanish capital and become a legend at the world’s biggest club, but the criticism is destroying his confidence just when, at 25, he should be reaching his peak. If they don’t want him in Madrid, the top Premier League clubs will be running to the bank to find the cash to bring Bale back to England in the summer.
Manchester United offered close to $130 million for Bale in 2013, but the attacker refused to consider a switch to Old Trafford with his heart set on Madrid. But the Red Devils would offer the same again to add him to Louis van Gaal’s improving squad, while Manchester City, Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain would all explore ways to make the transfer viable.
At any of those clubs, Bale would feel the love he is sorely missing right now in Spain. He is the best British player around, with the potential to win the FIFA Ballon d’Or one day if he can build on the form he showed in his final year at Tottenham and first year with Real Madrid.
His stats remain impressive. Twenty-two goals in 44 matches last season have been followed by 16 in 39 this year, but for a growing number of madridistas it is not enough. In England, Bale would be the best player in a division where he went out on a high as double player of the year, where his power, speed and rocket left foot are more devastating than in the more technical La Liga. He is the kind of superstar who could drive a side like United to the title next season.
Bale is a Florentino Perez signing and is backed by the Real Madrid president, but the player must wonder whether he will ever fulfill his potential while he is playing Robin rather than Batman. Cristiano Ronaldo’s petulant reaction to Bale’s first goal against Levante last week told anyone watching that there is not room for both of them to shine in the same team.
At the moment, Ronaldo is the main man and rightly so, but at the age of 30 his powers will soon start to wane. Either the Portuguese has to leave, or Bale needs to head back to these shores where he can be the focal point of a team and drive it toward titles. When all of the details regarding Bale’s world record $109 million ransfer from Tottenham to Real Madrid had been agreed upon in 2014, the announcement was held up by more than five hours of intense negotiations over the exact wording of the official statements from the two clubs.
The reason? Real Madrid was terrified of upsetting Ronaldo by disclosing that the Portuguese was no longer the most expensive player in the history of the game. That theme has continued ever since. Ronaldo is indulged and prioritized and Bale is simply a very expensive part of the support act.
That’s fine. But Bale needs to play somewhere where he can show why he is the most expensive player ever, even if that means turning his back on the Madrid dream and coming home.
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