After his ‘record’ summer move to Real Madrid (which turned out to not quite be a record summer move after all), Gareth Bale finds himself under real pressure for the first time as a Galactico, and unfortunately for him it’s taken hardly any time at all.
He started off reasonably enough, converting a neat move to score on his debut against Villarreal, but injury has reared its ugly head to stop him from using that momentum to really hit the ground running.
It’s a bit unfair that remarks about Bale being ‘injury-prone’ have resurfaced as a result. He had a great run of fitness at the back end of his Tottenham spell and made the most of it with some absolutely talismanic form.
But the real damage of this setback is not physical. It’s mental.
In the past, when Bale has been forced onto the sidelines for however long and for whatever reason, he's been free to get on with his recuperation in relative peace. Now, he is being introduced to the sheer degree of politics and other external factors that big-money players at clubs such as Real Madrid have to deal with.
First there was the peculiar and awkward conflict between Real and Wales boss Chris Coleman over Bale’s selection for the final World Cup qualifiers, which proved to be absolutely worthless as he immediately withdrew anyway.
Club v country rows are no new thing to many a top-flight player, but a combination of Bale’s profile and the sheer ridiculousness of this particular exchange made it 10 times the unnecessary distraction it should have been for a player who will just be wanting to forget all the expectiatons, get back on the pitch and do what he does best.
It happened all over again when Spanish paper Marca reported that the winger would need back surgery, provoking a high-profile spat with the club who clarified that Bale had a “small chronic disc protrusion” which would not need surgery.
Then there’s the predictable debate over when Carlo Ancelotti will start playing Bale again, and whether or not it would be too soon. The huge teams like Real Madrid have a tendency to get their stars back on the pitch sooner rather than later, too. They are, after all, the men who the fans paid all that money to see.
I found as a player that the one upside of being out injured for a while is that you go off the radar for a little while. It allows you to not only rehab the injury, but gather your thoughts and mentally re-boot, if you will, ready to start afresh.
Bale’s decision to join Real Madrid, unfortunately, has eradicated any remaining hopes of doing that. His profile and his status just will not allow it. He’ll always be the subject of some sort of debate.
It’s a shame because he has got this far by being able to avoid such off-the-pitch distractions and focus on his game. I suspect that this alone will not be enough to become a hit at the Bernabeu.
In fact, if he wants to get up to that next level, he has someone to learn from at the club in Cristiano Ronaldo.
People always give Ronaldo a hard time about his ego, and how much he probably hated reports that Bale was more expensive than he was, and also probably liked the fact that it’s not the case after all.
But while his mental approach rubs many up the wrong way, his immense confidence has also made him immune to the thunderstorms that club, country, fans and media alike are capable of whipping up around him.
While he can pout and protest with the best of them, Ronaldo does his thing on the pitch no matter what people are doing or saying about him. And Bale needs to be like that, too.
Not just football, but all sports are led by athletes who not only possess the talent, but the state of mind to embrace all of the obstacles thrown up by external factors.
If he can do that, Bale will not only bounce back from this early setback but he will become even better than he was at White Hart Lane.