A mystery at Real Madrid and a ghost in Wales: who the hell is Gareth Bale?

A mystery at Real Madrid and a ghost in Wales: who the hell is Gareth Bale?

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They haven’t seen him around for a couple of years, but when Gareth Bale went to play golf with his high school friends at his neighborhood club in Cardiff, the Whitchurch, the boys signed him up under an assumed name. They warned the director, Christian Bannister, that he was tense in case he was not able to protect the then Real Madrid footballer, who ends his contract today, June 30, and goes to Los Angeles FC. “He comes here to play golf, it’s his down time, out of the spotlight,” says Bannister. But how to hide Bale in Wales?

Bannister remembers the lack of control that originated on Father’s Day, the third Sunday in June, with the club packed with members with their children. It all started when Bale parked in the small Whitchurch car park. “His car was striking, I think I remember a Mercedes G Wagon. A few partners noticed and started looking for it,” says Bannister. But the footballer had a small advantage. He was one of the few players allowed to move in buggy. And thanks to Real Madrid.

In 2015, the white club’s doctors wrote to Bannister to ask him to allow Bale to circulate around the club in a motorized cart, something prohibited without a medical certificate. The letter claimed it was to protect the player from possible injuries, Bannister doesn’t remember if it was to the ankle or back. Does not matter. The fact is that they located him and the children went for him. “We tried to protect him, but he was fine with the children. He signed a few jerseys. He was pretty,” Bannister surrenders.

Mural with the image of Gareth Bale in Whitchurh, the Cardiff neighborhood where the footballer grew up. Manuel Vazquez

However, graphic proof of that day at Whitchurch is impossible to find. Nor of any of the other days that Bale has spent there. Not a photo, not a listing with his name on the walls of the clubhouse. Despite the fact that he is his honorary partner and the most popular Welshman at the moment. But that’s how Bale’s transition to glory has been, a kind of gaseous disappearance instead of a powerful burst of light.

In that incident you can also see one of the first occasions in which the terms that later built the meme that summarizes the confusing relationship of Real Madrid with one of its legends were crossed: “Wales. Golf. Madrid”.

But on that Father’s Day their mutual affection had not yet faded, and Pedja Mijatovic had no reason to summarize his deterioration, as he did in October 2019 at SER: “For him, at this moment, his priority is his national team , then golf, which he loves, and then maybe he thinks of Real Madrid”.

Real Madrid took it as the summary of their disenchantment with a guy who no longer wanted to give them more. In Wales they interpreted it as an attack on a myth that took them wherever they dreamed of. A few days later the final crisis broke out. After a month injured and without playing for Madrid, Bale reappeared with the Welsh national team, which he qualified for Euro 2020. They celebrated with a banner that read: “Wales. Golf. Madrid. In that order”. The motto has become the motto of that team and one of the most popular songs in the stands.

A fan outside Cardiff City Stadium with an old album autographed by Gareth Bale.
A fan outside Cardiff City Stadium with an old album autographed by Gareth Bale. Manuel Vazquez

When he plays for the national team, the universe revolves around him. For Rob Phillips, the BBC’s football correspondent in Wales, the explanation is simple: “Even now, Bale is better than most of the rest of the players we have.”

The journalist understands the anger of Real Madrid. This season Bale played 289 minutes with his club and 782 with his national team. “Here he is still loved. He is an absolutely heroic figure for us”, he explains at Cardiff City Stadium on the eve of what he described as “the biggest game in Welsh history”. The next day, June 6, they received Ukraine: the winner would go to the World Cup in Qatar. The last time Wales were at the World Cup was in 1958, 64 years ago.

At the scheduled time for Bale’s appearance at the stadium, Burnley defender Connor Roberts sits at the microphone: “Obviously I’m not Gareth Bale,” he says. The change is executed without notice or protest. It is seen that the footballer needed to be treated by the physio, but he would speak later on Zoom. The federation’s press staff set up a huge plasma in the room, repositioned several journalists to bring the chosen ones close by to ask questions, and tested the sound. “I’m Gareth Bale and tomorrow I’m going to play a football match,” they joke.

Then, the soccer player appears on the screen. “Spending two hours to go to the stadium didn’t fit me,” he explains from a distance from the Vale Resort. The national team has been concentrating for a few years in this complex from whose training fields you can see the flags of the green of golf

A fan poses with Bale's Wales shirt at the Elevens pub in Cardiff, owned by the footballer.
A fan poses with Bale’s Wales shirt at the Elevens pub in Cardiff, owned by the footballer. Manuel Vazquez

The distance that the plasma gives him allows Bale a comfortable balance between the weight of his figure and the discomfort that his talent always causes him off the field. “I think everything around football is not enjoyed that much,” says Phillips. A person who has worked closely with the player in Spain, and who agrees in his assessment, defined him long ago as “an old-fashioned footballer”, only interested in the game. He says it’s partly due to his character: “He doesn’t like to make himself known. He is very shy, even with his people. At a meal, he will never be the one calling the shots at the table.”

Nor has he wanted to make himself known off the field, except with his selection. In his heyday in Madrid, the brands, the fans and the media have felt his lack of interest. But that’s what it is, according to a source close to him: “You don’t understand. He does not care. And it’s too late.”

His frequent appearances when with Wales are also misleading. When Rob Phillips, the journalist who knows soccer best in the country, is asked who he should turn to in order to understand his most brilliant soccer player, there are a few seconds of awkward silence: “It’s a good question. I don’t think there’s anyone in Wales who knows him.”

But there they take it more calmly than in the Bernabéu stands. The recipe to digest it can perhaps be found in one of the businesses that the footballer has in the center of Cardiff. Par 59 is a pub that looks like an underground club, with a miniature golf course surrounded by tables and stools. On one of the holes a neon lights up that reads: “Expectation is the mother of all frustration” (expectations are the mother of all frustrations).

Before Par 59, a more football-oriented pub had opened, in front of Cardiff Castle, Elevens, which on the day of the match against Ukraine has everything reserved from twelve in the morning. There you can drink a pint of Bale Ale and walk among souvenirs of the footballer: shirts, the boots of the Chilean from the final in kyiv or a replica of the Champions League trophy. There are also jerseys of other athletes, such as Giggs, Bergkamp, ​​Maldini, LeBron, Jordan, Ronaldo Nazário, Maradona or Pelé. Seen up close, they constitute another example of his limited involvement in almost everything. They do not come from a personal collection built on the basis of exchanges on the pitch, but are purchased on a platform that sells objects signed by athletes. On their website, for example, they show Pelé sitting at a table on which he signs shirts that can be bought for 1,300 pounds (about 1,500 euros).

The Elevens is not the only Cardiff pub packed on the morning of the Ukraine match. Actually, pubs aren’t the only thing packed with Welsh shirts. They are seen in all the streets of the center. However, finding among those thousands of garments one with the number 11 and Bale’s name is like diving into Where’s Wally? Nor can you buy a figurine of him in the souvenir shops, nor a scarf with his name on it in the street stalls that even sell Ukrainian flags, nor a book in the well-stocked sports section of the country’s largest bookstore, nor does anyone seem Have you ever gotten a tattoo of your name? Bale remembers some gods: he can be worshiped, but to represent his image constitutes heresy.

Bale celebrates with his teammates the qualification of Wales for the World Cup in Qatar that begins in November.
Bale celebrates with his teammates the qualification of Wales for the World Cup in Qatar that begins in November. Manuel Vazquez

Dressed in unnamed T-shirts, the Welshmen repeat chants alluding to him. “Long live Gareth Bale”, like this, in Spanish. Or the most common: “Fuck the Union Jack, we need Gareth Bale” (fuck the Union Jack [la bandera del Reino Unido], we need Gareth Bale). But why don’t those who invoke the footballer almost as a symbol of national affirmation wear his name on their shirt? The answers show the improvisation of those who had not noticed. “I do not know what to tell you”. “Then the footballer retires and you keep his name on the shirt.” “They are more expensive.” Or the sudden inspiration, at the Sand Martin, the last pub before the stadium, an hour before the game: “He is in our hearts, not on our shirts.”

Bale grew up in that corner of vague expectations and, at the height of his career, he fell into a team where the display of passionate commitment excites. But what did they expect in Madrid? After many frustrations due to his ailments and the contrast of attachments between his team and his club, many even turned on the myth of the language: he doesn’t even speak Spanish, they said. Which means: he doesn’t even speak to us in Spanish. It is a misunderstanding that he, in his line that nothing matters to him, has cultivated until the end.

The most important game in the history of Wales was refereed by a Spaniard, Antonio Mateu Lahoz, with whom Bale had played nine years in the League. When they met in the field, Mateu spoke to him in Spanish. Bale preferred to prop up his legend: “Que?”, he answered, and kept talking to him and protesting the whole game in English.

Wales won with an own goal from Ukraine. Andriy Yarmolenko headed in a free kick taken by Bale, who celebrated it as if his shot had gone in cleanly. Also the stands, and the press gallery. “That’s what he does: Gareth Bale,” said Phillips, the BBC journalist. The striker celebrated qualifying for Qatar, and during the celebration he suffered cramps in the twins. He celebrated like everyone else, and then slipped away to hug his children, almost the only ones in Cardiff City Stadium with 11 emblazoned on their jersey. He left the group to make a living for himself and no one in Wales cared.

In Madrid they wanted Bale to give them what he gives in Wales, and Bale wanted to have in Madrid what he has in Wales.

Two days before that game, during the weekend of celebrations for the Queen of England’s Platinum Jubilee, which made Bale a member of the Order of the British Empire, a party was held at his parents’ house, still in the modest neighborhood of Whitchurch. The inconspicuous two-story row house stood out this afternoon because of the fleet of cars at its door. In a neighborhood of Ford, Kia and Hyundai, a Porsche, a Mercedes, a Range Rover and an Audi TT were gathered. It was the Jubilee, but the Bale party had a different touch. Several houses in the neighborhood were decorated with white, red and blue balloons, the Union Jack, while other colors floated in the soccer player’s. As the afternoon passed, people who were drinking in the garden were adding up, and a sound system was unloaded from a white van.

At 6:30 p.m., the roar of an orange two-seater McLaren emerged from his street, advancing in fits and starts, with the doubts of someone who tried it on loan. But in the car, like almost nowhere outside the field, Gareth Bale was not there either. Evening was falling, and melancholy music gushed from his house. What a Wonderful World, by Louis Armstrong. Y The Way You Look Tonight, by Sinatra, who sings: “Precious, never change. Keep that charm that takes your breath away. Could you please? Because I love you. Just how I see you tonight.”

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