That great sporting ambassador, David Beckham, was in Madrid on Friday to launch a new line of clothes. The former England captain drew the usual throng of admirers and his flying visit was favourably recorded by what seemed like every television crew and newspaper in the Spanish capital.
On Sunday a very different British ambassador for football will run out at the Nou Camp as Real Madrid endeavour to avoid falling four points behind Barcelona in the title race.
It remains a mystery why supporters of the 10-times European Cup holders have still not taken to Gareth Bale as they did to Beckham just over a decade ago – especially when you consider that Beckham won a solitary league in his fourth and final season, and Bale has already won, and scored decisive goals in, the Copa del Rey, the Champions League, and the World Club Cup.
As well as just having had the best first season of any Brit abroad, and being the only top British player currently plying his trade in a major European League, Bale is also now the last remaining Briton left in the Champions League.
A solitary figure is also how he has been depicted in Madrid.
He didn’t go to Cristiano Ronaldo’s 30th birthday party last month, he still doesn’t speak Spanish, and even on the pitch analysts have him pegged as the man stood out on the wing, neither tracking back to bolster a recently porous defence, nor involving himself in the team’s build-up play.
A lot less is made of those three historic goals – his header in Lisbon in the Champions League final, the sprint from the halfway line in the last minutes of the Copa del Rey final, and the second goal against San Lorenzo in December that made Real Madrid World Club champions.
That win in Marrakesh was the team’s 22nd consecutive victory but what followed was defeat in the league to Valencia in the first game of the new year, a quarter-final exit from the Copa del Rey, a 4-0 derby defeat to Atletico Madrid, the defeat to Athletic Bilbao that surrendered the lead at the top of the table to Barcelona, and a 4-3 home reverse to Schalke in the Champions League that meant, despite going through, the team was whistled off the pitch.
All this would have been even worse had Bale not won and scored a late penalty away to Cordoba after Cristiano Ronaldo had been sent off during a game at the end of January, but not much is made of that either, as he bears the brunt of much of the criticism for the monumental 2015 dip.
His goal celebration last week – covering his ears as he ran to kick the corner flag – was the first public show of any annoyance with the puzzling treatment.
Perhaps it’s Real Madrid supporters’ hankering for a more local hero that has led to their deification of Malaga-born Isco – a talented attacking midfielder, but far from the complete player he is being portrayed as by some of the propagandists.
It is also possible that Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti has also done Bale no favours saying he will always play if he is available. It smacks of him having a place in the team by presidential decree, not a helpful comment from a usually impeccably tactful coach.
Isco would lose his place in the side in the unlikely event of all of Real Madrid’s attacking players being available at the same time, and that has maybe encouraged a subtle campaign to promote him, at the expense of Bale.
Last season Bale, Karim Benzema and Ronaldo did very little back-tracking as Luca Modric and Angel Di Maria covered the kilometres either side of Xabi Alonso. This season’s team has lacked that defensive balance, especially when Modric missed three months of the season with a thigh injury.
He returned last weekend against Levante and Bale immediately looked more comfortable on the pitch with a friend, an English speaker, and a midfielder capable of defending, just a few yards behind him on the pitch.
In the dressing room he also gets on well with left-back Marcelo and there is a healthy relationship with both Ancelotti and his assistant, Paul Clement. Those two could be off at the end of the season, but Bale has an even more highly placed sponsor in the club’s president, Florentino Perez.
It was Perez who sanctioned the €100m (£72.5m) outlay on Bale. The gamble paid out in shiny Champions League medals and Bale then went off on a promotional tour of Indonesia in the summer, before being the brightest light on an otherwise flat Real Madrid tour of the United States.
He is the perfect Perez player – successful on the pitch and marketable off it. He wants him on the Ballon D’Or podium next summer and has indicated as much to Ronaldo who can now see his top billing at the club on the slide.
Some of that sense of insecurity at the younger model’s unstoppable rise might have been behind his extraordinary reaction last weekend when Bale put Real Madrid ahead and Ronaldo waved his arms in frustration at having not scored the goal himself.
Bale was invited to the now infamous Ronaldo birthday party, but after the 4-0 defeat to Atletico the same day he chose to steer clear of it. A wise decision, as became evident once the molehill of a video of some harmless Ronaldo karaoke led to a mountain of accusations and recrimination.
It would be inaccurate to say there is any great animosity between the two but, as with the supporters, neither does there seem to be any great bond.
On Sunday they will need to be united to get the better of Barcelona. If Beckham is in attendance maybe he can take the time out post-match to explain the complexities of these most fickle supporters to the man who now runs up and down that same right wing, has won far more in far less time, but is still struggling to gain anywhere near the same affection.Reuse content