There is a seismic shift currently happening in Madrid. In a recent La Liga fixture against Las Palmas, a substitution was signalled, and as the board went up their was a stunned silence around the stadium as the Real Madrid number 7 flashed up on the board, with the game not yet won. For their first time in 8 years then, Cristiano Ronaldo was indeed replaced in a tactical substitution. Twitter erupted, and even the players mother offered her support via the means of social media. This though is only the latest occurrence in a series of factors that suggest Gareth Bale is about to take the mantle from Cristiano Ronaldo as the lynchpin of ‘Los Blancos’, something he was promised when he made his record breaking move three years ago.
The Welshman’s Madrid career thus far has been difficult to evaluate. He would quite rightly point to the two Champions League winners medals as testimony to his success, and one would be hard pressed to argue this point. Still though, particularly amongst the notoriously hard-to-please Madristas, there remains a lagging doubt over the justification of the £80m outlay, as well as the resulting displacement of the popular Àngel Di Marìa from the squad. Whilst the remit of delivering the elusive Decima was delivered in his very first season at the club, if truth be told we are yet to witness the consistent match winning performances that White Hart Lane became so accustomed to during his last two seasons at Tottenham Hotspurs. It is of course expected to deliver such dominant performances when playing for a team for whom it is par for the course to swat opposition aside with considerable ease, and the presence of a certain Portuguese player means it is a constant battle to take the limelight.
Cristiano Ronaldo has of course defined Real Madrid ever since he made his move from Manchester United. Between him and Lionel Messi, world football has a rivalry unprecedented in past eras. A quick glance at the Portuguese captain’s stats since joining show him averaging over a goal a game, with 261 in 240 performances, and he is certainly not shy in the self-glorification of his achievements; any man who opens a self-entitled museum in his hometown is not afraid of taking the limelight. Ronaldo’s ego then was much discussed throughout the Bale transfer, with it being reported the true value of the deal was hidden to appease the Portuguese captain. Talk of a difficult relationship then between the two superstars has existed since the day one of Bale’s tenure in Madrid, and a staged photo of the two on his arrival will not have fooled many. Seeing the designs of their respective man-bags on show during their embrace said all you need to know about which player possesses the larger ego. Ronaldo’s powers though are on the wane, and that is no slight on a man who has well into his 32nd year. Few players maintain their physical prowess to the level of the three times Ballon D’or winner, and the way which he has adapted his game to compensate for a reduced ability to surge past a man at will is certainly commendable.
Unfortunately for the Madrid icon, football waits for no-one, and I have stated in the past that I believe he would indeed have been moved on in the summer transfer window had it not been for the knowledge of the impending transfer ban. The ban then was the biggest factor in a tumultuous summer for Los Meringues. In a parallel universe in which no ban was approaching, one of Bale or Ronaldo would have more then likely left, with Bale arguably being the more simple departure. There certainly would have been no shortage of suitors, with any one of the cash-rich teams in the Premier League no doubt ready to pounce on a proven game changer within the division. As it happened though, Madrid could afford to let neither one of them depart, a theme which will continue throughout the ban as they will be unable to bring in a replacement in terms of both playing and commercial value. Bale then must take this opportunity to show both Zidane and the fans that Florentino Perez was right when he elected the Southampton academy graduate as the heir to the throne.
The first step for Bale is to develop an ego worthy of a player of his stature. Media shy since he made his breakthrough in the Southampton first team at the age of 16, only in the short period awaiting the confirmation of his transfer did we see him fill any column inches whatsoever, as the front pages began to concentrate on his toned torso and metrosexual choice of swimwear. Since then though, he has been content in allowing Ronaldo to dominate the limelight, and even during Wales’s run to the semi-final of the Euros, they never resembled a team built around one man like their Portuguese counterparts; Bale was the star, but he would never let anyone catch him flaunting that tag. This very quality though is perhaps Bale’s biggest problem. Professional sport is a cutthroat business, and there is no shortage of players who have been labelled as ‘too nice’ to make it to the very top level. Just this past week we have read how the coaching staff at Manchester United were more then happy to let Michael Keane join Burnley on a cut-price deal, not because they were unable to spot the potential in terms of ability, but more due to the fact they did not think he was tough enough. This is of course not to compare the relative achievement of a defender who is yet to prove himself at the top, and a two times Champions League winner and finalist in the European Golden Ball award, but the point is still relevant.
Bale then must show the drive and determination to usurp Ronaldo as the main man in Zinedine Zidane’s Madrid side. Internal politics at within the dressing room will certainly not be easy to overcome; Real Madrid more then any other side are prone to internal disputes, and it is widely accepted that it was ultimately this that led Jose Mourinho to cut short his spell in the Spanish capital. Bale then will have to convince the likes of Sergio Ramos, Pepe and Benzema, all known disciples of their Portuguese talisman, that he is worthy of being their go-to man when under pressure. This is of course easier said then done, and Zidane in particular will be keen to ensure squad harmony remains strong through their impending transitional period, during which, as mentioned, overhaul is impossible due to the transfer ban. The next 18 months then could very well categorise the career of both Britain’s most expensive, and arguably most talented player.
Should Bale manage to take the mantle within the Madrid side, he will go into the 2018 World Cup at Russia knowing he has an opportunity to cement himself as an all time great on the world stage. World Cup winners medals remain the only blotches on otherwise perfect mark sheets for both Ronaldo and Messi, and should Bale be able to drive a nation to glory in the manner in which we have not seen since perhaps Diego Maradona, he will have every right to be spoken about in the same manner. Should he choose to see out Ronaldo’s final seasons at Real Madrid as his accomplice in chief, Bale’s career will not reach the heights which it no doubt has the potential to scale. It is time for the boy from Cardiff to stand up, and take on the very best in the world, not only as part of a team, but on an individual, more selfish role.