Gareth Bale takes brunt of Real Madrid criticism

A 4-0 thrashing at city rivals Atletico prompts fans to whistle world’s most expensive player

A strange thing has been happening recently at Real Madrid, who have started 2015 with only five wins in nine games. Considering they had won the previous 22 in a row, five wins from nine can be represented as a crisis, especially when their last game was a 4-0 thrashing at Atletico Madrid.

The enormous media entourage that follows Madrid energetically stokes crises so that they can quickly seem all-consuming. There's blame to be apportioned, and somebody has to take the fall. Remarkably, it appears that the man who has found himself in the crosshairs of public opinion is the world's most expensive player, Gareth Bale.

Bale has 14 goals and six assists in 24 matches this season. He's won the Fifa Club World Cup, adding a goal in the final to go with his goals in the 2014 Spanish Cup and Champions League finals. By any normal standards, he's been having another extravagantly successful season.

And yet he finds himself being whistled by sections of the supporters and criticised in the Madrid press for sloppy technique, lack of game intelligence and a supposed tendency towards selfish individualism.


Media narrative

This creeping media narrative is curious because Real Madrid can usually wield rather a lot of influence over these whispering campaigns in the Madrid press. Certainly, with Bale’s record, he might have expected the club to come out to bat for him rather more than they have done.

The criticism to which he has been subjected doesn't make sense. Madrid did not sign Bale because he stitches the play together in the style of Toni Kroos or Luka Modric. They didn't sign him because he sees passing angles that don't seem to be there, like James Rodriguez. They bought him because he could destroy opponents with spectacular runs and shots. How does it make sense to criticise such a player for individualism? Individualism won Bale two PFA Player of the Year awards.

Since Bale is now being criticised for playing the way he has always played, it’s hard to escape the impression that some important people within the Madrid hierarchy have simply got bored with their latest superstar.

A player has to do a lot to hold the attention at Real Madrid. Bale scores goals, but not as many as Gonzalo Higuaín, who was summarily packed off to Napoli. He creates goals, but not as many as Mesut Özil, who was traded to Arsenal. Bale is probably the most powerful runner in the league, but the most expensive player in the world has to do more.

It’s unfair on Bale, who is obviously not the best player in the world. He is only the world’s most expensive player because 18 months ago Real Madrid thought it was time to break the world transfer record again and Bale happened to be the flavour of that particular summer.

Breaking the world transfer record is now probably Real Madrid’s core brand value. Other teams will get their hands on the Champions League from time to time, and that can’t be helped, but Madrid guard the transfer record jealously. Ownership of the record marks them out as European football’s apex predator.

Madrid also respect the money to be made from the gigantic UK football market, and the vast projecting power of the UK media, and this fed into their thinking when they decided to make Bale a galactico. Maybe they didn't appreciate the subtle distinction between Englishness and Welshness. If Bale was English he would be the biggest star in the national team and his career in Spain would be a major focus of interest. But Bale is from Cardiff, meaning that for most of the UK population he's just another good footballer rather than an object of national adoration. He's a better player than David Beckham was, but there aren't any journalists making a living from reporting every detail of his foreign sojourn to an eager audience back home. Maybe Madrid feel as though they're not getting the bang they expected for their buck.

Madrid also knew they could always send Bale back to one of the big English clubs without taking much of a hit on the deal. That now looks like the most likely outcome, even though Bale has done nothing wrong, and Marco Reus or some other sensation will be the new Bale.

A football model based on always having the world’s most fashionable players undoubtedly brings big TV audiences and as Madrid showed last year, it can even win you the occasional Champions League.

Sense of emptiness

And yet there’s a gnawing sense of emptiness at the heart of what Madrid are doing. You looked at the faces of the Spurs crowd at White Hart Lane when

Harry Kane

scored the winning goal against Arsenal. When was the last time Real Madrid’s supporters got to experience a comparable moment of joy?

The Champions League win seemed less significant for the championship of Europe it signified than for the fact it was "La Decima", the tenth. The delight and relief of the players that night in Lisbon was obvious, but the fans rather seemed to take it in their stride. Madrid winning the European Cup? That's merely football as it should be. Actually White Hart Lane was football as it should be, and Madrid, focused on accumulation for the sake of accumulation, have forgotten what it can be like at its best.