Given all the sponsorship deals, the trademarked goal celebrations and the almost video game-like way he goes about his football, it can be quite easy to forget that Gareth Bale is a human being.
He’s not just some emotionless soccer-bot who runs down the wing, whips in a cross or smashes home a free-kick from 30 yards, but rather a man who thinks and feels, and so there can be no way that the recent abuse he’s received from the Real Madrid fans and the Spanish press won’t have affected him somewhat. As a result, his response on Sunday night was quite fantastic.
When scoring the first of his two goals in the 2-0 win over Levante, Bale ran towards a corner of the Santiago Bernabeu stadium, kicked over a corner flag and cupped his ears.
This was him showing that the criticism he’s been receiving lately wasn’t affecting him. Judging by Cristiano Ronaldo’s rather bizarre reaction his steadfastness might not necessarily be universally admired, but so far this is a test that the Welshman has come through with flying colours.
Why the criticism? Well Real were winless in their previous three games, enough of a run to spark talk of a crisis at that most demanding of clubs. And when there’s a crisis, the most expensive footballer in the world is probably going to get singled out.
In truth Bale hasn’t been performing to his normal high standards for a few weeks now.
Before the Levante goals his previous strike was a last minute penalty to win a game at Cordoba on January 24th – interestingly just seven minutes after Ronaldo had been sent off – but that was largely due to an overall malaise at a club who were always going to have to have a comedown following the sparkling early season form which featured 22 wins in a row in all competitions.
This little spell of struggle has featured a 4-0 hammering in a Madrid derby, a loss in Bilbao and that remarkable second leg Champions League defeat to Schalke which ultimately counts for little.
Bale – a player seen as the apple of club president Florentino Perez’s eye – has been at the centre of this storm, largely because attempts to look elsewhere are met with more than a sideways glance at Ronaldo’s remarkable scoring rate, something which really only one other player in world football can match.
That player, Lionel Messi, and his Barcelona chums ‘welcome’ Bale, Ronaldo and Real to the Nou Camp on Sunday evening for a titanic tussle like few others.
This latest ‘El Clasico’ comes with a lot on the line.
Neither Barca or Real have been perfect this season but they meet separated by just a point at the top of the league table, should Barca win then a four-point advantage would be a significant blow to land with just 10 games left in the league season.
A Real win, however, would completely turn the tables on the campaign and restore a feelgood factor that still isn’t completely back despite the victory over Levante. A Real win with Bale at the heart of it would see things come full circle.
The nature of the Welshman’s goals on Sunday – a reaction to a Ronaldo effort which had been saved, and then a touch in from a cross-shot from the Portuguese – has almost been dressed up as him ‘stealing’ the strikes from Real’s great goalscorer, and thereby stealing the limelight at the same time. But after the few weeks he’s had it would take someone with a particularly hard heart (or a white No. 7 shirt) to begrudge him those goals.
Coming through this spell of criticism still smiling and still scoring might well be the making of him, and if Bale goes on to have a long and successful career in Madrid then those he cupped his ears to on Sunday night will always be able to say “I was there.”
They wouldn’t have been amongst those abusing him though, of course.
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