There's a battle for Gareth Bale's soul being waged in the media of two different countries. On one side, you have the Spanish press expressing the frustrations of their readers by bashing the player's lazy, timid displays on the pitch. On the other, the press in Bale's native Britain is using its pages to decry his unfair treatment abroad in an effort to sweet-talk him back home with promises of riches, effusive adulation, and zero scrutiny. But no matter how dire the Brits make out Bale's situation in Spain to be, there's little chance of luring him away.
Calls in Spain for Bale's head aren't really a new development, though their tone bordered on bloodlust after last week's "successful" 4-3 loss to Schalke. For their part, Real Madrid fans aren't wrong to be upset with the Welshman. After a strong opening season highlighted by a couple huge goals in the Copa del Rey and Champions League finals, Bale hasn't improved. Fans and the media have criticized him for his lack of defensive effort, his selfishness, and his poor decision-making. Since the start of the club's 2015 doldrums, Bale has been one of the chief scapegoats for the slump, which has quite obviously affected his confidence. The Schalke defeat brought more of the same, with fans targeting Bale and keeper Iker Casillas specifically with their whistles and frustrated chants.
At least one important member of the club believes the fans have gone too far. In a statement after the loss to Schalke, club president Florentino Pérez blamed much of the negativity surrounding the team and Bale on an overly-critical media. As Pérez told the media during the impromptu press conference, via the Telegraph:
Gareth Bale is one of the best players in the world. The biggest clubs fought and continue to fight to secure his services. The only thing I can say is that we shouldn't forget what he was able to achieve in his first year at Real Madrid.
Despite manager Carlo Ancelotti's repeated statements that his three forwards are must starts when healthy, others are not quite as supportive. One anonymous "member of the squad" ripped Bale in sports daily Marca late last week:
"Bale is a great player, but he doesn't win you matches on his own," added the same source ... "He doesn't defend because he doesn't want to."
The article closes on a note making clear what the superstar hierarchy is in Madrid:
With Ronaldo suffering a dip in form due to fitness problems and low confidence, Bale has been unable to step up as the board would have hoped. He has plenty of class, but is not even half the character or half as hungry as the goalscoring machine from Madeira.
Any honest appraisal of the situation would conclude that this can't be the best time for the former Tottenham winger. He isn't playing his best, isn't one of the top few most important players on the team, has piqued the fans' ire, and has been put on blast by a member of his own team, all while his name continues to be floated in fervently denied though eminently reasonable transfer rumors. Not a great environment.
And in comes the British press to the rescue. In response to Marca's report above, the BBC came out swinging. The article starts by noting the Spanish media's problems with Bale, which it calls unfair, and goes on to accuse Marca itself of being on a campaign to send Bale packing: "[T]he overall message is clear: Marca want Bale out."
It then goes on to explain away the Welshman's poor form, and it's all more-or-less accurate. After all, he hasn't been the only Galáctico struggling as of late, and is being asked to perform a rather demanding role that doesn't really suit his strengths. The BBC's extreme rhetoric, though, is definitely over-the-top:
The direct cause for Marca's brutal assassination of Bale was a hastily scheduled press conference held by Real president Perez on Thursday, during which he attacked that morning's Marca front page story claiming that Ancelotti would be sacked if the team lost badly against Barcelona next weekend.
Directly singling out Marca for criticism, Perez suggested that his team's recent troubles have largely been the media's fault and slamming their supposed "lies".
And now Perez is learning the dangers of taking on the media, who can always have the final word in any argument, because Marca have responded by aiming their ire squarely at the man who is widely perceived as Perez's personal favourite: Bale.
Again, they aren't exactly wrong about Marca's ulterior motives at times, but in the example they give, the paper isn't really doing anything other than reporting what they've seen and heard. Not that Marca makes it easy to defend them. On Sunday, in response to the BBC's article, the Spanish paper had a response. Under the headline "Hooligans at the BBC." Here's some of the English version:
Recently the BBC, recognised the world over for its standards since it was founded a few years after the First World War, has veered off the course that made it a byword for quality journalism throughout the 20th century.
This demise has been made evident through incidents both great and small. In the latter camp come such bloopers as mixing up the Italian and Bulgarian flags at the beginning of the ongoing rugby Six Nations. The alleged cover-up of the sexual abuse of minors perpetrated by one of the BBC's former stars, presenter Jimmy Savile, is obviously of a far more serious nature.
An example that hits closer to home involves the recent accusations about Marca and our supposed agenda against Gareth Bale, according to which we have unfairly criticised the former Tottenham forward in order to score points against Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez.
Yeah, pretty strong. You can find more information on the Jimmy Savile stuff here, but it's all gross. (Short version: Savile was a radio DJ and a BBC TV personality who, after his death, was accused of perpetrating hundreds of cases of sexual abuse. There were also allegations of cover-ups, possibly by the BBC itself.)
Anyway, after those burns, Marca goes on to contest the BBC's coloring of their coverage before ending with another dig at the BBC's journalistic integrity. After posting the article, they ran around the office cackling and giving each other endless numbers of high fives, presumably.
The Telegraph also got in on the Bale gravy train, this time making more explicit the sentiment underlying much of British coverage of Bale's troubles. As one of their columnists put it, Bale should leave those ungrateful meanies over in Spain and come back home to mama. Specifically, to Manchester United:
There is something wrong with Gareth Bale and it is time for him to come home. There will be no disgrace in that, no recriminations, no snide comments about another Brit struggling abroad.
There will be a tinge of regret on his part, a bruising to his ego, but Bale needs to come back to the Premier League before too much damage is done to him at Real Madrid.
The column goes on to touch on the criticism Bale has faced in Madrid, the questionable fit of his speed and power-driven game on a team that demands the highest levels of pure technique, and how the Prem is made exactly for him. They all but give him a starring role at Manchester United, saying the only thing that could gum up the deal would be the prospect of losing keeper David De Gea in the other direction as Casillas's replacement. On its face it all sounds reasonable. Mostly.
This is much the same attitude that fueled all those transfer rumors a few months ago. The thinking behind those, even during a time when Real were successful, was that Bale wasn't integrating into the club and country's culture all that well, and that a return to Manchester United would make him the preeminent star in the whole league while he toils as the third- or fourth-biggest name in Madrid. Coupled with the breakout of players like Isco and James Rodríguez, and the prospect of Real buying Marco Reus on the cheap this summer (something which is a lot less probable now, after the German signed a new contract with his employers at Borussia Dortmund), it made a lot of sense that Real and United would be interested in a deal.
However, the huge hurdle that the English press ignored then and is overlooking now is Bale's own interests. Even if he's the fourth-most important player on Real Madrid, he's a star for the most famous club in the world. Even if he gets whistled by angry fans during bad stretches for the team, he's still a shoo-in starter for the perennial favorites for every trophy that matters. Even if the media savages him from time to time, he still has the utmost confidence of the current manager and the all-powerful club president. And when he does perform well, as he did in his two-goal performance this past weekend, the Madrid papers are more than willing to heap the praise upon him:
Even taking into account the current situation, things would have to take a dramatic turn for the worse in order for Bale to leave all that.
And what would he be getting in Manchester, his only realistic suitor? To play with a struggling, poorly constructed, aging squad under the sport's thickest magnifying glass? The media that pines for British icons and takes it as a blow to their collective ego that the best player the English-speaking world has produced ditched the World's Best League™ might love him now, but failing to turn around this former juggernaut would put him under at least as much pressure as he faces now. Real are still a couple good performances and an injury boost away from being the most feared team in the world again. Manchester's best case scenario is, in a few years' time, approaching something in the broad vicinity of what Real already have.
Realistically, the only way Bale goes to United is if Real try to kick him out, as even the bad times in Madrid are most likely better than good times in Manchester. Some more focused defending, a couple more goals, and a win in El Clásico this weekend, and Bale will be right back in the good graces of the Spanish capital's fans and media. Salvation for Bale doesn't lie in England. It's all right there at his feet, on the Spanish grass before him.