x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Real Madrid ideal club for Gareth Bale to realise greatness

After two months of speculation and negotiating, Real Madrid finally sign Gareth Bale for €100 million from Tottenham Hotspur on a six-year deal, writes Andy Mitten.

Gareth Bale can strive for greatness in the Spain unlike a few of his Welsh predecessors. Ian Kington / AFP
Gareth Bale can strive for greatness in the Spain unlike a few of his Welsh predecessors. Ian Kington / AFP

As Gareth Bale was introduced to 20,000 adoring Real Madrid fans at the Bernabeu after completing the formalities of his world-record €100 million (Dh484m) transfer yesterday, it is worth remembering earlier Welsh imports.

Not every Welshman working for a Spanish football club enjoyed the success of John Benjamin Toshack. With 480 games in charge of top-flight Spanish teams over 17 years including Real Madrid, Real Sociedad and Deportivo La Coruna, Toshack is seventh in the all time number of games coached ahead of Manuel Pellegrini, Alfredo Di Stefano, Radimir Antic and Johann Cruyff.

Toshack learned Spanish – though some of his phrases were often lost in translation as he translated English idioms directly.

In his second spell in charge of Madrid in 1999, Toshack told reporters there was “more chance of a pig flying over the Bernabeu” than him retracting criticism of the team.

Madrid’s president considered it an insult and dismissed him.

Mark Hughes, the Welsh striker, did not fare as well after he joined Barcelona from Manchester United in 1986. Hughes rarely left his apartment and – in contrast to fellow signing Gary Lineker who settled well – made almost no effort to learn Spanish or Catalan.

Hughes' feeble 87-page autobiography does not even list his statistics as a Barcelona player.

Hughes admits that he went for "bundles of money", which equated to nine times what he was on at Old Trafford. He stayed in a hotel room so small he claimed "you couldn't swing a cat". Ignoring the glorious city in which he lived, Hughes admits that "to shut out the boredom I slept most of the time" and also "made toasted sandwiches". Hughes was played out of position and lasted a season after scoring just four goals in 28 games.

Though born in England, Michael Owen has lived most of his life over border in Wales close to Hughes' hometown of Wrexham. Owen joined Real Madrid in 2004 but he did not settle off the pitch, did not learn Spanish and lived in a hotel with his two-year-old daughter. He still did well with his limited chances on the pitch, scoring 13 goals in 20 league starts.

Other British players integrated better. Though he was injury hit, Jonathan Woodgate learnt Spanish. David Beckham did not, but he socialised with his Madrid teammates and was a popular figure in the dressing room. Steve McManaman was a success on and off the pitch, learning the language, winning the Uefa Champions League and loving Madrid alongside his then lawyer girlfriend who did a Spanish law conversion course.

Madrid fans naturally have very high expectations of their most expensive ever player, Bale. They have seen the footage of him scoring hat-tricks against Inter Milan, they know he has twice been voted the English Premier League's best player and they are excited at another marquee signing – the type which has become the norm. In Madrileno eyes they are justifying their status as the world's greatest club by signing the world's greatest players.

There has been widespread criticism of the transfer fee, which Tottenham Hotspur wanted to be over €100 million (Dh491m) and Madrid wanted to be less than €100m, with Tata Martino, the Barcelona manager, criticising the fee as "disrespectful" and "a lack of respect for the world we live in".

Raul, the Madrid legend now playing in Qatar, joked that he would be cheaper to sign.

The criticism comes in part because Spain is five years into a sustained recession. Spanish football has a combined debt of €4.1 billion, with the Spanish inland revenue owed €663m. Madrid's revenue is the highest in world football, though their credit lines are not what they were, though this will be of little interest to Bale or Carlo Ancelotti, his new boss.

The Italian coach will be under instruction to play the world's most expensive player from Florentino Perez, the club president. Bale's versatility can help an Italian coach already overstocked with attacking options. He can play in several positions, though he is likely to start on the left of an attacking midfield three in a 4-2-3-1 alongside Isco in the centre and Cristiano Ronaldo on the right, with Karim Benzema up front.

Perez adores Benzema, but another option would be to play Ronaldo up front, with Angel Di Maria on the right. A third option would be to play Bale as an attacking left-back.

Bale has the potential to join his new teammate Ronaldo and Lionel Messi as one of the best three footballers on the planet. It is for him to realise it on the biggest stage which club football can provide. There is no better setting than the towering Bernabeu stadium.


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