Gareth Bale likes to describe his Wales team-mates as “brothers” and the Real Madrid forward must have felt a sense of familial warmth this week, when he has at last traded the jeers and jibes of Spain for the love and support of home. Back in Cardiff for the start of the Euro 2020 qualifying campaign, Bale would have been forgiven for loosening his shoulders and breathing an almighty sigh of relief when he first set foot on Welsh soil.
Such has been the struggle for Bale in Madrid this season, when the fans, media and even his team-mates have seemingly been taking turns in sniping away at his ability and character, that a chance to embark on international duty will surely have provided him with some much-needed relief. Bale is back with his boys, and crucially he is back to being one of the boys.
“He’s the main man,” said Ryan Giggs, the Wales manager. “He loves playing for Wales, he loves coming away with his mates.”
The image that has been created of Bale in Madrid, particularly in recent months, is one of self-imposed isolation. His ongoing difficulties with the Spanish language were made clear in an interview with Marcelo, the Madrid left-back, and his subsequent distance from his team-mates was then highlighted by Thibaut Courtois, who told the tale of Bale missing a team dinner because it was too late at night. The local media’s obsession with his passion for golf, meanwhile, shows no sign of fading away.
But now, for a week at least, Bale can swap the heaviness of his plagued life in Madrid for a refreshingly lighter load. Sure, there is footballing pressure on the 29-year-old, who will be expected to lead Wales to victory against Slovakia on Sunday, but that has rarely seemed to weigh him down on the international stage.
The emergence of an exciting crop of Welsh attackers — David Brooks, Harry Wilson, Daniel James — will also reduce some of the expectation on Bale, who will be hoping to play with a liberation that has been missing in Spain. He has started only five games in 2019, while last weekend’s victory over Celta Vigo was the first time since December that Bale had completed the full 90 minutes of a match.
Bale’s unpopularity among the Madrid fans remains a curiosity, given his accomplishments at the club. His agent’s recent claim that the supporters should be “kissing his feet” was perhaps excessive, but it revealed a frustration from Bale’s camp at the perceived underappreciation of his success in Spain: a league title, a Copa del Rey, three Club World Cups and four Champions League victories in six years.
For all that, though, it remains fair to question Bale’s medium-term future as an elite player. He turns 30 in July and it would not be unreasonable to wonder what impact all those injuries — a total of 15 in the last four seasons — have had on a body that was once one of the most explosive in Europe.
The metrics of Bale’s performances tell their own story. This season, he is attempting and completing fewer dribbles per game than in any of the last seven years. He is also creating less than a chance per game, again his lowest output of his career in Madrid.
How much of this is physical decline, and how much is a result of the ugly atmosphere that surrounds him in Spain? This weekend may give some clues. Liberated by a return to his “brothers” off the pitch, the hope for Wales will be that this freedom is translated into match-winning quality.