Whether fair or not, Gareth Bale has a reputation. The view many seem to take on the Welshman is that he is no longer in love with football, at least at club level, and instead prefers to pick up a golf club and spend his days playing 18 holes.
That is a notion he would most likely rail against. But the fact he has signed for Major League Soccer side Los Angeles FC on an initial one-year contract with the option of a further 18 months has done little to change it. Waking up in the California heat, miles away from the rigour and competition of European football, where Bale has had a huge amount of success in his career, would suggest, at first glance, that his heart isn’t in his profession anymore. There have even been suggestions that he is only heading for America for game time ahead of the last remaining source of burning passion, leading Wales at the World Cup in Qatar in November. Again, though, he strenuously denies that claim.
After bringing nine trophy-laden years at Real Madrid to a close this summer, Bale could be forgiven for suffering from emotional burnout. He’d struggled in Spain during his later years, first for recognition from supporters and then game time. Anybody who wins five Champions League titles, playing pivotal roles in two finals, and three league titles would usually gain legendary status, leaving with a huge send off. But Bale departed unloved and in something of a bitter conflict with the club, which had become worse over time. There was a new apparent refusal to immerse himself into the lifestyle and way of working on one side, and a resentment of that fact on the other. It was never going to end well.
Yet, the idea that Bale is no longer driven to succeed as a footballer runs deeper than just what happened in Madrid. Two seasons ago, he returned to Tottenham Hotspur, the club where he made his name, on loan. It was billed as a chance for him to regain his best form surrounded by people who knew and loved him, but it didn’t quite work out that way, with Bale often found on the periphery, waiting for inspiration to give his career a jolt, something he is still waiting on now.
Signing for an MLS franchise has long been seen as tantamount to an early retirement, but Bale insists that is not the case. Regardless of whether it is fairly reflected in Europe, which is still seen as the place to be for the best standard of football, the league has dramatically improved. That was David Beckham’s aim when he swapped Madrid for LA to sign for the Galaxy in 2007; back then, he was a pioneer, the most famous athlete on the planet giving himself the task of kickstarting a revolution. Depending on how success is measured, it could be said that he has made a difference, now owning his own team, Inter Miami FC.
Beckham was 31 at the time, and Bale is 32. Neither age suggests an imminent desire to wind down. Over the past 15 years, more and more global football icons have plied their trade in the States, from Kaka and Thierry Henry to David Villa, Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The stigma still remains, because nobody of that ilk has made the move at their peak, showing just how far the sport still has to go.
But should matching the elite really be the aim? If it is, it is wholly unrealistic. Soccer will never be America’s number one sport, as it is in the majority of Western European countries. Continued growth must be the target, and Bale, standing as the sort of modern day Beckham, is the ideal man to keep the momentum going. It could even be a positive if he is no longer hungry for success at the very top anymore; for all Beckham’s commitment to the cause, he still possessed a burning desire to win, and returned to Europe with AC Milan on loan and then Paris Saint-Germain after leaving the Galaxy under a cloud, heavily criticised for losing his initial focus.
Of course, the World Cup remains at the forefront of Bale’s mind, which suggests he does still want success in the sport. But it isn’t hard to make the distinction; Wales, apart from being his country of origin and more meaningful in a deeper sense, is also the only place he has played where he gets the respect and responsibility he believes he deserves. The very best clubs in the world wouldn’t give him that any more because his best days are behind him; leading something bigger, namely growth and improvement in the game as a whole, is something that has already given Bale purpose.
While he keeps getting criticised for making a career choice that many now believe proves his decreasing passion for football, there is a chance for Bale to make something count before he retires. Crucially, he needs love and belief in him to be able to achieve it.