“Atletico or Real?”
Sport asks the taxi driver in Madrid in an attempt to distract him from his clear mission of crashing before we even reach our interview with Gareth Bale. “Madrid,” he replies firmly. “Real Madrid. Bernabeu!”
“What do you think of Gareth Bale?” we ask, forgetting to even attempt our broken Spanish as the cabbie continues his vendetta with his accelerator, going forward at a speed appropriate for the Welsh international. Is that Maicon and Marc Bartra we can see in the wing mirror, disappearing behind us?
“Si, si, Bale – and Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, James Rodriguez...” nods our host kindly, clearly mistaking Sport for the kind of hanky-headed tourist who’s only heard of Real’s one British player. “Do you like Bale, though, as a footballer?” we add. “Ahh,” says our companion, taking his eyes off the road to look at us for more time than we’d really like. “Gareth Bale gives Real Madrid... something different. We don’t have a player like him ever before, I think.”
“Yeah, it’s important to have variety: we all bring different strengths to the team,” says Gareth Bale, when we finally reach him, miraculously, in one piece. “We have a strong squad, but more than that we have the right mixture as well. I think that is showing more and more this season, now that we’ve all started to gel together.”
Gelling into the side took time for Bale when he began his Real Madrid career 18 months ago. Niggling injuries stalled his early progress, leaving observers to wonder whether he was the right fit for the Spanish game.
“It is more tactical, a lot of passing – whereas the Premier League is very fast, very physical,” he confirms.
Not that Bale ever questioned his ability to adapt and succeed. “On the football pitch, I always felt comfortable,” he says. “A new language was probably the biggest challenge, to be honest. The important thing is that I now understand the team talks and what people are saying. It’ll still be a bit of time before I’m able to speak Spanish better, but I have lessons every week and I’m improving all the time. But when it comes to football, I’ve always had confidence in myself and my ability.”
Nonetheless, it was soon apparent that Bale wasn’t the type of midfielder who would rack up 80+ completed passes per game, in the mould of a Xavi or Xabi Alonso. Not because of any deficiency in technique, but because this wouldn’t be the best use of his attributes: athleticism, skill at high speed and the shooting power of a Welsh Hot Shot Hamish.
Bale has adjusted to a new style in Spain, but there’s been give and take: Real have also adapted to him. It’s become clear that Bale doesn’t need to be involved in every aspect of Real’s play. He’s put to better use when making more sparing – but more decisive, often match-winning – contributions.
“One bonus about playing for Real Madrid is the opportunities the team creates,” says Bale. “In the Premier League, some teams had started to double-up, even triple-up on me. It’s not impossible to deal with, but I’d have to adjust my position or my play. Now, if a team were to double up on Cristiano [Ronaldo] or to double up on me, it just gives space for one of the others. It makes it really hard to defend against us, because we always have someone who’ll take advantage.”
Taking advantage of opportunities is something Bale did resoundingly in his first season at Real Madrid. The image of a topless Cristiano Ronaldo flexing his buffed 12-pack after he scored a late penalty in the Champions League is an image that won’t willingly leave our brains, but Bale scored Real Madrid’s two crucial winners in 2013/14: a wondergoal to beat Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final, then an extra-time header to give Real the lead for the first time in a Champions League final against Atletico.
“It was incredible,” says Bale on the atmosphere back in Madrid post-match. “After the Copa del Rey, we came back late in the night and the whole city was alive, even at that hour. I remember a few of us in the team speaking and saying: ‘Imagine if we won the Champions League, what it’ll be like – it will be 10-times bigger.’ We came back after we did it and it felt like there was about a million people in Cibeles Square. It was an amazing feeling to celebrate with all the fans. And it just went on and on…”
CARLO THE BOSS
It was a record-breaking 10th win for Real and a record-equalling one for their manager Carlo Ancelotti. In winning it, the Italian matched Bill Paisley’s tally of winning Old Big Ears three times.
“Carlo is quite laidback,” says Bale. “He gives us the confidence to go on to the pitch and express ourselves. But it’s the closeness and connection that he has with the players that’s really special – he makes footballers want to run themselves into the ground for him.”
“AFTER THE GAME, CARLO HAS GIVEN US A GOOD BOLLOCKING”
Has Bale seen his cucumbercool manager lose his rag?
“Yeah, a few times actually. We’ve had some games where we’ve been in the lead and we’ve almost given it away – and after the game, Carlo has given us a good bollocking. But every good manager needs that side to him – and he’s shown over the years what a great manager and what an amazing person he is.”
Ancelotti’s ability to claim such warm loyalty in a dressing room full of superstars is a key part of what makes him such a successful manager.
“It’s actually no different to any other dressing room I’ve been in,” says Bale on being surrounded by his fellow galacticos every day. “We all get along and have a laugh. Marcelo is probably the biggest joker – he messes around a lot. But we have a good team spirit in the dressing room and I think that’s shown in the performances that we’ve had.”
Bale has settled well. But when he signed there was talk that – given his playing position and the size of his transfer fee – his move could put the bronzed hooter of Real’s premier galactico out of joint. Did he ever have a chat with Ronaldo, even in jest, to put to bed any competitive needle between them?
“Not really – I knew coming here that Cristiano was the main man. He’s an amazing player. Just look at his goals-per-game here [288 goals in 276 games]. I respect him, so we’ve got on very well since I’ve been here, on and off the field.”
What if Bale was in his old position of left-back: how would he go about playing against Ronaldo?
“Maybe ask the manager if I could switch sides,” he replies with a laugh. “It’s difficult to stop players like him who are so good, so consistently. You just have to hope he has an off day, I guess.”
UNDER A MICROSCOPE
Off days are not tolerated at Real Madrid. It’s the kind of club where, no matter how successful the team is, any run of three defeats constitutes a crisis in the eyes of the media. Asked to compare the press attention in Spain and England, Bale is unequivocal: “There’s a lot more focus on Real Madrid. Being here is like being under a microscope. They have whole newspapers that are dedicated to Real Madrid. But that’s just part of being a Real Madrid player – you get used to it.”
Bale sounds relaxed. His mix of level-headedness, combined with ambition and supreme, if softly spoken, self-confidence, makes for the ideal mentality for a player at arguably the world’s biggest club. Ask the 25-year-old Bale if his goal is to one day win the Ballon d’Or, for which he was nominated in 2014, and he avoids the hoary old footballer cliche of individual awards meaning nothing so long as the team win.
"BEING HERE IS LIKE BEING UNDER A MICROSCOPE. THEY HAVE WHOLE NEWSPAPERS THAT ARE DEDICATED TO REAL MADRID"
“Being nominated shows that you’re doing something right on the football pitch and people are seeing it as well,” he says. “I hope that in the future I can be one of the favourites to win it. But at the moment, I’m on the right track, progressing well. Hopefully I can get to the top one day.”
His attitude to success is similar to the mantra espoused by Sir Alex Ferguson, the manager who tried to sign him when the teenage Bale was at Southampton. Last season’s triumphs are dust, and all that matters is the next trophy fix. He refers to his medal and match ball from the 2014 Champions League final as souvenirs: “They’re hidden away now. I try not think about the past too much. Once I’ve finished my career, I can look back and see what I’ve done – but at the moment, I like to look at what is next.”
Upcoming for Bale and Real Madrid is the Champions League, which begins again in February as the defending champions take on Schalke in the last 16. Real are currently bookies’ favourites – along with Bayern Munich – to retain the title. If so, they would be the first team to retain it since the days of the old European Cup.
“As much as we wanted to win it for La Decima, we’re equally hungry to retain it,” says Bale. “Whichever tournament we’re going into, whether we’ve won it in previous years or not, we want to win it. We’ll be trying our best to do it, and I believe that we can.”
A relentless attitude to winning. Gareth Bale might bring something different to Real Madrid’s play on the pitch, but his approach is perfectly in sync with his club’s culture.
Gareth Bale is one of the world’s most hated players and wears the all-new adidas adizero f50. To join the conversation, follow @adidasUK #ThereWillBeHaters