Lampard, Gerrard, Rooney, Scholes, Beckham, Terry, Ferdinand, Ashley Cole… For a period in the mid 2000s it felt like the English media were incapable of seeing a good English player without anointing them as the greatest player in the world, with all of this culminating in the now gag-inducing phrase “Golden Generation”. This was all well and good, and don’t get me wrong, the players mentioned above were unbelievably talented, but eventually the mystique wore off. Rooney was shadowed by his own teammate, Cristiano Ronaldo. Gerrard and Lampard supposedly couldn’t play together, Ashley Cole text unwanted wang-pics to, well, not his wife, and Terry and Ferdinand couldn’t play together because Terry
allegedly racially abused Rio’s younger brother.
What does this have to do with the titular star of this article, I hear you say? Well, that is because the narrative changed. The shine came off the Golden Generation and the media, by enlarge, became snarkier, more prone to clickbait headlines. Meaner, basically. From around 2010 onwards the story swung from bigging up British players to crushing them down, bigging them back up and throwing them down further. Look at the Three Lions at the last few major tournaments. Slam the players beforehand, hype them up and big-up the “It’s Coming Home” narrative, then shame them once they exit.
One of the biggest losers, media-wise, is Gareth Bale. I’m aware that this has been a very England-heavy article so far, but that is because the English media are so impactful. I’m sure BBC Wales are much kinder to Gareth, but sadly they don’t get as much coverage as the Sun, the Daily Mail, Sky Sports News and so forth.
People make their own minds up on matters, but there is no denying that the media can influence. Bale retired this week and the Twitter polls come out. Is Bale the greatest British player of all time? Is he the best Welsh player? Is he the greatest Spurs player ever? Yes, it is dull, it is tedious, but what is worse is the comments. Not just people spouting their opinions, but doing so with venom and anger. Is Bale better than Giggs (morally yes!), or is he better than Ian Rush? Maybe. Maybe not.
I don’t believe that Bale is the greatest player of all time, and I don’t care enough to get into Twitter squabbles with basement-dwellers who have Twitter handles like @RampantRonaldo or @FierceFred about rankings. What I do need to stress is that Gareth Bale was great. He was one of the greatest players of the last 15 years.
Look at the trophies. Look at the goals. Look at that mind-boggling burst of speed to score against Barcelona in the 2014 Copa del Rey final. Look at THAT Champions League tie against Inter. Look at the ridiculous Champions League final goal against Liverpool, that I have tried to blame on Loris Karius for years, much to the chagrin of my friend who was infuriated that I couldn’t just praise the goal (Ross, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry. You were right, it was a cracker. If you’re not reading this then fuck you for not reading my work).
What I liked about Gareth Bale was that he didn’t have the seemingly God-given natural talent that your Messis, Pelés, Zidanes et al seemed to possess. He worked his ass off. He was talented, sure, but he trained hard, he developed, he made himself a superstar on the pitch for clubs and country but never seemed to delve into the world of fame. When interviewed he came across as humble; as sincere. At the Euros in 2016 and the 2022 World Cup he captained his side and he struck the balance of being a seasoned professional who was there to win, whilst still having the giddiness of a young Cardiff boy dreaming of kicking a ball at the Millennium Stadium.
Well, young Gareth excelled himself. From breakout star at Southampton, things took a turn for the worse at Spurs. It took 25 games for Bale to turn out on the winning side at White Hart Lane. According to an interview he had with The Guardian in 2010, Harry Redknapp had to have a meeting with the player to discuss his excessive hair-styling, that ‘Arry handed to give the Welshman the hairdryer treatment, but that he was worried the player would use it to do his barnet!
This eventually turned around for Bale. He got that illusive win. He went on to be dependable, then undroppable, then the first name on the teamsheet. He was pushed from left back to left wing, to out and out forward at times. He was fast and he hit the gym. He morphed from a scrawny kid to an animal. Think of Ed Norton’s Bruce Banner going full Hulk mode, only when Bale smashed it usually resulted in a goal.
We all remember the Inter game. That was just the start. Performances like that continued, only they were being wasted on West Ham and Stoke. Harry Kane’s loyalty to Spurs is commendable, but Bale was doing great things and decisions had to be made. He moved to Real Madrid in 2013, becoming the first Welshman to play for Los Blancos, and what a legacy he left. He never truly seemed to win the fans over at Real Madrid, however even the most anti-Bale Madridista would have a hard time denying his influence over the club.
The reason for the dismissal of Bale may be his passion for his country. Bale is Welsh, and my goodness he is proud of it. He rarely turned down the opportunity to play for his country and when he turned up, he gave the Dragons some moments to celebrate. We all know the iconic photo. After securing Wales qualification for Euro 2020 he was photographed with a flag that read Wales. Golf. Madrid. A reaction to comments made by a Real Madrid director who had made disparaging comments about their star attacker’s priorities.
While this angered the Madrid hierarchy and fans, it goes to show why Bale was so liked by those outside the La Liga bubble. It was human. It was fun. It was also correct. Bale is proud of his country and, while it was no doubt a dream to play for Real Madrid, it was a job, a stressful job at that. Few jobs have as much constant scrutiny as turning out for the most iconic club in the world. He loves golf, it relaxes him. It provides him a few hours of relief from under the microscope. Was it smart to hold up the banner? Probably not, but did it send a message that he is human and not a robot in the Madrid Machine? It did.
I started this article off by discussing the English media and their poisoned perception of British players, and I stand by that. Bale was probably the first world-class Briton to come out of the post English Golden Generation era and as such, it took time for the media to warm to him, especially as he worked hard to get there. Even today, 15 years on from his breakout, he still finds himself scrutinised. He isn’t this and he isn’t that. Look back at his career. He has special moments for all his teams. He’s won a ludicrous amount of trophies, team and individual, including a staggering five Champions League titles – aside from Real Madrid themselves, only three teams have won more than five Champions League/European Cup titles in history!
I fully believe that if Bale were South American, Dutch, Spanish, Italian, basically anything other than from the UK, then he would be regarded clearly as the best non Messi-Ronaldo player of the 2010s. Instead his validity is justified, and if you don’t prefix any mention of his with “one of the best” in any category then you’ll have your head bitten off. Gareth enjoyed a remarkable career, despite some tough injuries and a bizarre onslaught of haters and doubters, and I hope that he is able to enjoy his retirement at whatever golf course he desires.
Mwynhewch Ymddeoliad, Gareth. Cymru. Golff. Madrid.