I wrote this a year ago when everything was pointing at Bale’s departure from Madrid. It was never published as he ended up staying one more season. I wasn’t ready then, I am not ready now… but here it is, the same words, the same feelings, the same gratitude.
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This is an article that I didn’t want to have to write, at least not like this, at least not now. But here we are. Goodbyes are never easy.
I remember six years ago (it feels like ages ago) driving twelve hours to Los Angeles to see Real Madrid play in the same summer tournament they are playing now, the International Champions Cup. It was its first edition, and everyone was very excited to see all these great European teams play. It had been years since I had left Spain, and this was my first chance to see Real Madrid up close in a long time. Excited falls short to describe how I felt.
It was during that summer that the rumors started getting stronger that we were trying to sign Gareth Bale. A player that I had been following in the premier league for a while and had me in awe with the way he played. At the time the debate seemed to be whether we would sign Bale or Neymar. To me the choice was clear, and I took the first opportunity I had to let Florentino Perez know.
We were waiting outside the training facilities at UCLA (University of California Los Angeles) waiting for the players to walk to the locker rooms and try to catch a picture or an autograph, when Florentino arrived. Everyone was eager to get as close as security would let us, attempting to get anything signed. I, at the time a university student, started yelling as loud as I could asking him to sign Bale. Others joined in and small chants started, letting him know that we wanted Bale. It caught Florentino’s attention and he looked towards us with a mischievous smile, mouthing in Spanish what to me seemed “we’ll see” (veremos) as he continued walking towards the building.
It was in that moment that I knew Gareth Bale would become a Real Madrid player. I was sure of it. What I didn’t know was how great he would be for us, and yes, you read that right, GREAT.
A few weeks later the transfer was confirmed, Bale was officially signed. I remember how excited he seemed to be at Madrid and how he said that his objective was to win, especially the desired “décima”. Some of you can’t or don’t remember how long the wait for the tenth champions league was. It was not quite like the wait between the sixth and the seventh, but it wasn’t easy. For years we couldn’t even make it out of the round of sixteen, and after it was dying at the shore of the semis, so close but so far. Now it feels like winning the Champions League is the norm, when in reality it has always been the exception. That is why winning it so many times has made this team exceptional.
In that moment, the beginning of a great era began, second only to the legendary times of Di Stefano, Gento, Puskas, etc. Unfortunately for us, what also began was a campaign to discredit Real Madrid, being Bale the favorite target to do so. Before he had arrived, the news had already started slandering his name. Making up prices for his transfer, adding every penny they could think of to make it seem more expensive than it really was. Even worse was inventing medical conditions to claim he was not fit to play. It was only the beginning of continuous attacks that still last today.
It didn’t matter what Gareth did on the pitch, the story would always be something else. His injuries, which unfortunately were many, would be multiplied. His reticence to speak Spanish in public was used as a weapon to criticize a lack of cultural integration and therefore a lack of professionalism. It didn’t matter the times he had spoken Spanish, even directly to the same journalists that were saying he couldn’t say a word, the truth was of little importance to them. His fluency with Spanish was not the only thing used against him, anything related to him was free game for these “journalists”. His family was attacked, his in-laws, anyone, and since Bale is a private guy and his daily life is not well known, the only thing that could be told about it had to come directly from the perverse imagination of the person telling it.
The attacks became more vicious as time passed, his success and contribution to all the titles were hurting those who had made it their job to ruin his career at Madrid. The attacks became ridiculous, to the point of criticizing his lack of “night life” and his tendency to rest and go to sleep early, to his lack of social life as he prefers to spend his free time with his family, ending with the most laughable of all, his love for golf. A healthy and wholesome sport that suddenly became the most evil of vices.
Unfortunately, this campaign was able to accomplish one of its goals, it did not stop Bale from making history (and what history!), but it reached part of the Madrid fans who cannot think for themselves and sheepishly repeat everything and anything the press says. To them Bale has been what the press depicted him to be instead of what he actually was, instead of what they actually saw with their own eyes.
Luckily not every Real Madrid supporter is as easy to manipulate as them. To some of us, and I believe we are a silent majority, Gareth Bale has become a living legend of Real Madrid. It is true that he was not able to become as great as he could have been, hindered by injuries, but he was great nonetheless. We will always remember his sprint across half the pitch against Marc Bartra to deliver an amazing solo goal to win the Copa del Rey against Barça. It was Bale’s first great goal to win us a title, and it wouldn’t be the last one.
Not long after, he would rise high in the sky of Lisboa to head the ball inside the goal to give us the lead against Atlético. It was a game we had lost until the very end when Ramos gave us that last breath of air sending it to overtime with his legendary goal. A game that was more than a game, a game that meant the “décima” would finally be home. We had been waiting twelve years for it and Bale had helped us win it within one.
Just doing something like this would make any player become part of Real Madrid history forever, but Bale did even more than that. Assists in the super cups, goals in the club world cup, every title won had somehow been impacted directly by Bale. He gave the assist in the final in Milan and finished the game limping to prevent the team from finishing with only ten players. He also took the responsibility to take one of the penalties in the shootout that gave us number eleven, a penalty that he sent to the back of the net basically in one leg.
Impressive as any of this is, it is not as impressive as his greatest goal was (and still is) for Real Madrid. I doubt many goals can compare, and not only in Real Madrid history but football in general. His bicycle kick in Kyev has forever been immortalized in the archives of the beautiful game. I was at the Bernabéu watching the final and will never forget the feelings I had after that magnificent goal. Feelings that are impossible to describe with words. I couldn’t believe my eyes, but I could believe my heart, it was unreal but so real. His second goal wasn’t easy either, a long shot with a spin that the keeper couldn’t keep out. It was a goal that secured the thirteenth champions league, the third in a row, fourth in the five years Gareth had been wearing white.
It was a pity that injuries slowed down his progress, his surgery took him out for a long time and after that he was never able to fully regain his starting spot. Small injuries keeping him from having continuity. But even with his injuries, Bale was able to put up numbers that match those of any great. 102 goals and 64 assists in 231 games, winning 14 trophies while being key in most of them (if not all).
Even during last season, most likely his worst since he joined Madrid, he was able to contribute and be the best player in the only title won, minor as it was.
Some will remember him based on what was published on the Spanish media. Others will have in their memories the many times he fell with injury. Some people will only remember his goals in the finals, and others will remember everything he did for Real Madrid. I count myself part of this last group.
As I said before, goodbyes are never easy, but the time has come to bid Gareth Bale farewell from Real Madrid. It’s not when I wanted it to happen and definitely not how I wanted it to happen. All I can say now is thank you, thank you Gareth for six incredible years. Thank you for staying strong in spite all the vicious attacks thrown at you by the press and some of the fans. Thank you for all the wonderful memories. Thank you for your amazing goals. Thank you for making history at Real Madrid. And above all, thank you for becoming one of our legends.
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This were my words last year, little has change since then. Thank you Gareth for giving us so much, and sorry for giving you so little.