Gareth Bale, Unchained Dragon

For a player so spectacular, Bale catches an extraordinary amount of flak. At Euro 2016, he's aiming to set the record straight.
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There was a statistic floating around a few years ago that became synonymous with a certain #smartsoccer opinion of the day. The opinion, in short, was that Gareth Bale wasn’t a very effective player. The stat revealed that in each of the 24 games that Gareth Bale had appeared for Tottenham to that point in his career, the team failed to put together a single win. While bemusing at first read, the stat, like many numbers amidst the vacuum of team sport metrics, painted a rather unfair portrait of an underappreciated player who was being misused.

Of course, at the time it wasn’t too controversial: Gareth Bale was a fledgling 20-year-old Premier League left-back with an obvious talent but unclear future. In time, however, it was a statistic that would dissolve with the winds of change. Bale would move further up the pitch and lead Spurs to many victories before moving to Real Madrid in 2013 for a world record €100 million. Still, new unfavorable opinions on the Welshman continued to surface, reinforced by new numbers. And so, Bale’s is a journey that has been regularly witnessed and studied, but also torn to pieces.

There’s a clear dichotomy to the way Gareth Bale is discussed. Yes, he’s a Galactico, the world’s most expensive transfer signing and subsequent non-deliverer of the astronomical expectations that come with such a branding. But he’s also commonly touted as Bale, the toiling Welshman, burden-bearer of his lowly nation’s long-evaded search for global soccer relevance. One one hand, he’s harangued; on the other, lauded. This makes his role among world soccer’s elite a peculiar one.

First, it should be reiterated that Bale is a great footballer. This is not debatable. His physical gifts are rightfully what most point to as his chief attributes. He’s a man with imposing musculature, making the fact that he’s also as quick as a gazelle even more frightening. Although overstressing his athletic prowess does downplay his technical skills, which are superb as well.

In truth, however, it’s easy to see why the club/country conversation splits for Bale. Since going to Madrid, the Southampton youth product has been often relegated to second-fiddle roles, despite the deep pockets it took to acquire him. Both on- and off-pitch, he’s the Malice to Cristiano Ronaldo’s Pusha. The other one. It’s not that Bale isn’t marketable, because he is, especially at a globo-giant like Real Madrid. His Williamsburg Dothraki man-bun is ultra-cosmopolitan, while his trademarked heart-fingers goal celebration couldn’t be more vapidly commercial if he grew two more arms and punctuated it with a Dab. These sort of image-focused actions acutely compliment a millennial athlete looking to have his or her face splattered across digital billboards from Times Square to Shibuya. Unfortunately, if you’re known as the guy that keeps cocking things up, those quirks can just as quickly become punchlines, which they have.

Bale’s debut season in Madrid was a modest yet acceptable transition into Spanish football. His sophomore season, however, was a slough of uneasiness. That uninspired 2014/15 — in which an underperforming Bale became fresh meat for the Bernabeu’s boo-birds — spawned countless “where has it all gone wrong” columns from British media highlighting the “savage reactions” aimed at the wayward winger. The bottom of the flask was reached in last year’s Champions League semifinal first-leg against Juventus, where Bale’s dreadful display — in which he touched and passed the ball less than both goalkeepers — drew the ire of footy watchers everywhere, not to mention Roy Keane, who remarked, “It’s very difficult to win a big game like this when you’re only playing with ten men.” Keane’s comments were enough for Bale’s agent, Jonathan Barnett, to go public defending the Welshman in what can either be seen as a simple bad look or a complete emasculation. Even Bale fessed up to his awful season in the most fan-(un)friendly way, by employing nuance: “It’s good to have a bad season.”

For the universally agreeable things that Bale has done on a soccer pitch, many point to his international exploits for Wales. With the Dragons, Bale is known as a mighty leader guiding a bubbling group of maybe-goods. That much is true.

Wales have been to one major soccer tournament, the 1958 World Cup, where a flukey qualification resulted in a dream quarterfinal run. That Jimmy Murphy-led team that torched Swedish soil has ever since been known as the golden generation of Welsh football. All of that changed when a certain diamond-jawed winger came along. Despite the talented core of captain Ashley Williams and midfielder Aaron Ramsey, today’s Wales squad very much hooks their hoverboards to Bale’s. Behind the winger’s seven goals, the Dragons spent the last two years qualifying for their first ever European Championships, now underway in France. To illustrate Bale’s significance to the Brits’ recent rise, three of his qualifying goals were match-winners, and in each match in which he scored, Wales emerged victorious. There’s no doubt that as Bale goes, so do the Dragons.

But here’s where the binary becomes faulty. While Bale’s national persona is one of proficiency, it’s at Real Madrid where he has actually encountered moments of real glory. Even in his first two years, which were discarded as busts, Bale still managed to stake his flag in the ground.

Rather than point to his influence in last month’s Champions League final victory against Atletico Madrid — a match where his superior, Ronaldo, went missing for 120 minutes until it was time for his Third Act money shot — consider the same exact European final matchup that occurred just two seasons ago. Although we mostly remember Sergio Ramos’ injury-time equalizer, it was Bale who lodged the winning goal against Atleti in extra-time to capture Madrid’s record 10th Champions League title. One month earlier, Bale had supplied the winning wondergoal against Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final (Marc Bartra remembers, even if you don’t). You can even go further back to 2010 when Bale, playing for Spurs, laid waste to Maicon and Inter Milan in the Champions League group-stage via a second-half hat-trick; on the very pitch that he’d raise the European Cup for the second time some six years later.

So yes, Bale has turned up on some crucial evenings for the Merengues, but what’s been missing for most detractors is the consistency. Well, that criticism might be dead in the water, too. In his 2015/16 La Liga campaign, Bale supplied 19 goals and 10 assists in 23 appearances. The two seasons prior, he managed 13 goals and 9 assists, and 15 goals and 12 assists; albeit in 31 and 27 matches, respectively. Due to a dodgy calf muscle, Bale played just 1,741 Liga minutes this season, the first time he had played less than 2,000 league minutes in a season since 2009/10. Compare his 2015/16 numbers to the previous best season of his career, which came in 2012/13 with Tottenham. That year, he tallied 21 goals and 4 assists in 33 league appearances (playing just under 3000 minutes). Bale’s production isn’t just higher now, it’s happening with considerably less pitch-time. That’s consistency taking its form.

It’s not that Bale has always been more potent for country than he has for club. That narrative has only been constructed due to a lack of contextual understanding by those who craft it (coupled with a small sample size). With Wales, Bale’s unremarkable surroundings have turned him from Ryan Giggs to Nye Bevan in the public’s eyes. It’s understandable. Playing one-twos with Joe Allen and Andy King tends to garner more cap-tips than it does with Toni Kroos and Luka Modric, if only because they’re less expected. But it’s in all-white that the heroic stuff has been happening as of late.

In fact, Bale’s most recent run has been impressive enough that oft-derided notion of a long-term future at Real Madrid finally seems plausible. Confronting the idea of a 31-year-old Ronaldo being somewhere near the vicinity of his twilight is a difficult pull, particularly with the Portuguese tallying 51 total goals this season and inching towards another Ballon d’Or. But the history of the sport is real, and it teaches us that eventual decline is, too. Bale emerging as Florentino Perez’s absolved white knight, should Ronaldo either digress or sail away to PSG or MLS, feels more and more likely with every blade of grass he singes.

Simply put, Bale is as efficient and effective of a player as he’s ever been. And with the Euros finally here, a priceless opportunity lies ahead. His current performances describe a consistent, decisive footballer who’s ready to take that final step into the Messi-and-Ronaldo tax bracket. And thankfully, people are noticing. Notable Spanish journalist Guillem Balague hasn’t been able to quell his adoration in recent weeks, while The Guardian’s Sid Lowe brilliantly wrote of Bale’s triumph over self-doubt just prior to last week’s final. In Lowe’s piece, Bale speaks of his newfound willingness to keep “going until the end,” to no longer remain “hidden.” While those words may ring hollow for some, they’re a vital part of Bale’s story. Not just the desire to step out from the bushes, but to burst through them to reclaim his career, as well as the narrative that surrounds it.

Look, it’s not that athlete discussion shouldn’t be approached from a variety of views, including ones cloaked in scrutiny. It’s healthy, as writers and thinkers and watchers, to constantly be altering our perspectives in order to become more empathetic engagers. It makes everyone better at their pursuits, if only because it teaches about the limits of people. Gareth Bale will push his own limits over the next month in France, perhaps more than he ever has. He’s already scored a wondergoal, and will likely skin some helpless fullbacks alive, before maybe even, in The Year of Leicester fashion, winning the whole damn tournament.

But even if he does lead his nation to victory; and even if he does become el rey at Real Madrid; and even if he does continue to be the most expensive footballer in the world. He’ll never be limitless. Even if the world thinks he should be.

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