May 26, 2024

Gareth Bale’s recommendation came with recrimination and regret. It also came with a grin and on the set of a comedy game show, but, as with many a joke, there was truth in his words, a hint of hurt, too.

This week, during the broadcast of a TV programme in the UK called “A League of Their Own,” the former Real Madrid player was asked what handy advice he had for Jude Bellingham, the Briton who has followed him to the Santiago Bernabeu. His response? Play the game. No, not that game, not the game; the other one.

There were plenty of things Bale could have said, drawn from his own experience over eight seasons in Spain. He could have said: win everything there is to win.

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Or: leap a hundred feet into the air, connect with a ludicrous overhead kick and score the greatest goal anyone has ever seen in a European Cup final, producing a moment of cartoonish brilliance to rescue your team when they need it most and win the most treasured trophy of them all.

Or how about: get the best goal the Copa del Rey final has witnessed in its whole history with the kind of ridiculous run that will be remembered forever, so immense the pitch itself couldn’t contain it.

That ought to do the trick. Only that didn’t really do the trick, somehow. And so instead, what Bale said was this: “The biggest advice: play the game at Madrid. If you don’t play the game and do what the media want, speak to them and basically be a puppet … do what the press want, playing the game of being at Real Madrid. That’s probably where [my] downfall [was]. I didn’t want to do it. I just wanted to play football and go home. It hindered me and that made them attack me a bit more. So my advice would be, honestly, just play the game of Real Madrid off the field. You have to speak after games, make sure you try to speak in Spanish, do those kinds of things.”

The kind of things, more or less, that Bellingham has been advised to do before, in other words. Right here, in fact. Of course what matters most, or is supposed to, is how well you play, the goals you score, the trophies you win. And if you don’t do that well, forget it. But that’s not the only thing that matters, and you can’t entirely separate the sport from the rest of it anyway, living in splendid isolation; it’s certainly not the only thing that will determine how you feel about the experience and how they feel about you, the legacy you leave.

In the end, going abroad is not just about playing, it is about being. It is about living it, embracing it. Enjoying it too, if you can. It is about, yes, playing the game. As Homer Simpson, the greatest philosopher of our time, put it: it’s funny because it’s true. There is something in Bale’s numbers and his experience, the disconnect between them, that bears out what he said; something that speaks to the way narratives are built, the way people are perceived, how success is dependent on sentiment, too.

Bale’s words showed a man stung, and there was something in them. The treatment, he would be entitled to believe, was not always the best. There was a degree of rejection, even derision, that was sometimes hard to square with what he had actually achieved. There was a line in one newspaper not so long ago, when Eden Hazard had gone months without playing, injured again and increasingly irrelevant, which said something like: Hazard, halfway to becoming Bale. He wishes he was halfway to becoming a Bale. He retired having never even got close.

When Bale left Madrid, one paper said he had “cost €101m and left behind a small collection of key goals, a long medical history and more off-field controversies than Madrid would have liked.” A small collection? Look back on Bale’s career in Spain, take in the trophies, and it was incredible what he did. He won three leagues and five Champions Leagues, for goodness’ sake. He scored in two European finals and a penalty in the shootout in another. He scored 106 goals and provided 68 assists. He was a legend.

Correction: he could have been.

Even when he was good, an idea floated that he was more athlete than footballer, and there were the doubts about his physical condition, an exhaustion with his absences rather than empathy, as if he wanted to be injured. As for the controversies, he stood accused of wanting to go to bed early, being quiet and liking golf, the monster.

Contrary to appearances, he liked life in Spain. That whole golf thing started, by the way, after a Champions League game one night when he was asked about potential opponents in the next round and he said, entirely naturally, that he didn’t really know anything about them; he preferred watching golf.

That became the go-to line of course, a joke so tired, so poor, so obvious, so weak and so … well, everywhere. “Wales. Golf. Madrid,” followed him around, a line he never said. Instead it was the amplification of an accusation made by Predrag Mijatović. This week, after Bale had offered his advice to Bellingham, there it was again. Speaking of puppets, Josep Pedrerol — the closest thing sports has to a preaching TV evangelist, offering sermons from the set — spat: “Advice? More football, less golf.”

He was not the only one attacking Bale in the press this week; many in the media took it a little personally. How dare he point the finger at us?

It’s not just now, either, which is the point: there was a moment toward the end of his time when one paper likened him to a parasite — the article even contained a cartoon bug in his image — and Bale responded furiously, calling it “disgusting, slanderous, derogatory and speculative journalism” and noting that “at a time when people are taking their own lives because of the callousness and relentlessness of the media, I want to know, who is holding these journalists and the news outlets that allow them to write articles like this, accountable?” There was in that line a glimpse of how, despite his distance, his apparent lack of care, it had hurt, and that was there again this week.

And yet while Bale didn’t frame it this way, while his advice came more as criticism than contrition, if he perhaps lacked the willingness to explicitly accept his role in it all, there was a recognition in there somewhere. A partial one, perhaps, not fully embraced or articulated, but it is there. There is a neat Spanish phrase: “consejos vendo que para mi no tengo” which translates to “I sell advice, because I have none for myself.” Listening to Bale the other day, it was easy to conclude: sure, so why didn’t you do that? Why didn’t you take your own advice? It was easy too to conclude that he knows that. Now, at least, if he didn’t then. That, he said, was his “downfall.”

It wasn’t the only thing, and it wasn’t just the media. The press plays a part in shaping the agenda, the impression of people, but it is the people, too. The saddest thing about Bale’s departure was that no one was sad at all: they had long given up, and they were pretty sure he had too.

Those last two years were two years too far; Bale had, in truth, checked out before he actually left. When he departed, he wrote a statement that insisted: “to wear the pristine white kit, to wear the crest on my chest, to play at the Santiago Bernabéu, to win titles and to be part of what it’s so famous for, to win the Champions League. I can now look back, reflect and say with honesty that this dream became a reality and much, much more.” But by the end, it didn’t feel that way. It didn’t even feel like he wanted to continue in the sport anymore. He is still only 34; he has been retired for almost a year.

Maybe reflect was the key word there.

Bale had felt wronged, going back a long time — that winning goal in the Champions League final in Kiev was vindication, and the joy was tempered by frustration that had grown inside him. By the last couple of years at Madrid he had withdrawn. He didn’t play much, let alone have an impact — there were three goals in his penultimate season, just one the season after that — and didn’t really want to either. Things had long been off with then-coach Zinedine Zidane; now it went well beyond that. He had disengaged, enthusiasm gone.

play

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Why Jude Bellingham’s been so impactful for Real Madrid

Alex Kirkland explains why Jude Bellingham has been so effective since joining Real Madrid.

If his behaviour did not always warrant the furious backlash he got, it was always likely to be seen badly. His advice this week overlooks that, and contains other flaws: not talking to the media may not help, but frankly few players do now — not least because the club prevents it. Plenty of players with limited Spanish have been popular. Plenty of timid footballers have been taken to the people’s hearts. And besides, some of what he could have done to help himself was so simple, so basic, as to suggest that not doing it was bloody minded.

He would leave Bernabeu games early, avoid club commitments. He was photographed with that “Wales, golf, Madrid” flag. Mostly he thought it was funny. They didn’t, they saw it as mocking them, while he thought it mocked the media.

He should have realised it. Even if on a superficial level, even if for cynical reasons, he should have seen that and acted on it — and that was effectively what he was saying this week, what he was admitting, in his way. Even if he framed it as a kind of “why should I change,” even if he compared playing the game effectively to becoming a puppet, he knew (or knows now) that he could have helped himself. And oh so easily. He had been told, his camp had too, but they didn’t do it. Didn’t say the right thing, didn’t do the right thing. Didn’t … well, play the game.

And in that at least, it was good advice.

Good, but not needed. For all that Bellingham has done so far, matching Bale’s achievements is still some task; it already seems pretty clear that if he does so, even if he falls a little short, only gets half-way, say, he will leave a legacy greater than his predecessor. The Englishman, who sat at the Bernabéu and watched his team this week, who went down to the dressing room afterwards, who already is a central part of the group, a generation that will be there for, well, a generation, is flying and not only as a footballer.

There is a lot that stands out about Bellingham at Real Madrid so far. It’s not just the goals, although boy are there a lot of those; it’s everything. It’s the personality, the leadership, the understanding. It’s the way he engages with the fans — right down to that celebration — it’s the things he says, the warmth and gratitude. The management of everything that’s around him, the capacity to fill the stage, to own it. The management of his entire career so far, the people around him, the attitude. It is who he is.

It’s that perfect combination of not caring that it’s Real Madrid — not being overawed by its enormity, instead taking charge — and caring deeply that it’s Real Madrid, being absolutely overawed by its enormity, the bloody hell this place is the best about him. It’s talking about the goosebumps and the kind of noise he has never heard before and how he wants to be here for years and years, how he has never seen anything like it. It’s about the awareness, the enthusiasm, the complete command.

And better still, it’s the sense that it’s entirely genuine, that it needn’t even be a game. So thanks, Gareth, but fear not: Jude Bellingham gets it.

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