I studied Spanish at school. And French, and German, and Latin. So why can’t I be Gareth Bale?

The difference is that Bale stood up and delivered his speech in public


Let’s get the envy question out of the way. Yes, I would like it to have been me the 15,000 madrilenos, or better still madrilenas, turned up at the Bernabéu Stadium to welcome to their club. Ever since I attended a bull fight on a school trip to Barcelona I have smelt blood in the sand, tasted churros from a sugared paper bag, and heard the crowd chanting my name. ’Oward! ’Oward! Never mind that I am not fleet of foot or brave of heart – am I not a matador, a galactico, in my soul?

And yes, all right yes, I would rather that the £300,000 (or is it merely euros?) Gareth Bale will be earning at Real Madrid every week – come rain or shine, regardless of whether he plays or sits on the bench, regardless of whether he scores or falls over in front of goal, regardless, in fact, of all contingencies including the collapse of the Spanish economy and the impoverishment of his Spanish fans – went to me.

I don’t say I am more or equally deserving, I don’t say I am deserving at all; I would simply relish being loved – and let’s not pretend that money is not now the prime signifier of popular affection – to the tune of the value of four nicely presented semi-detached houses in Prestwich, north Manchester, per month.

Think of that – 48 a year, a round 500 if Gareth Bale goes on to play at Real Madrid for a decade. I don’t actually want 500 houses in Prestwich (though I can think of a few people I’d like to give an avenue or crescent of them to), but then neither, I suppose, does Gareth Bale. It’s just nice to know that you can buy up a suburb if you are of a mind to.

But neither money nor acclaim is what this is about. It’s Gareth Bale’s linguistic virtuosity I envy. “Hello, it’s a dream for me to play for Real Madrid,” he said, smiling that still wet-behind-the ears, Welsh, mother’s-boy smile of his, ‘Thank you for the great welcome. Go Madrid!” Only he said it in Spanish. Reader, two whole sentences of Spanish! “Es un sueño para mí jugar en el Real Madrid, gracias. Gracias por esta gran acogida. Hala Madrid!” What wouldn’t a British Prime Minister give to be able to speak two whole sentences of Spanish? What wouldn’t I give to be able to say “Hala Madrid!” and receive a gran acogida for it?

I don’t know where Bale was educated but my school was hot on languages. I studied French to A-level, Spanish to O-level, German for a year, Latin for the whole time I was there, and had to do an Italian paper at university. And to show for this polyglottery, what do I have? A deep, disturbing resentment of Gareth Bale. “Hala Madrid!” he said, the little shit, and I am green with envy. In fact, thanks to my Spanish teacher, I pronounce it far better than Gareth Bale does. I know to slide my tongue between my lips, roll a bit of spit around and fill my mouth with ths. Mathrith. Mathrith, is how you say it, Garethth. But the difference is that he stood up there and delivered it and I am not able to. Too self-conscious.

To my ear, and no doubt to everybody else’s, I sounded a prat speaking a foreign language as a teenager and as a consequence everything I learned was turned by the corrosive power of embarrassment into forgetfulness. I shamed myself into lingual oblivion. Now, I can read a line or two of Dante but can’t order a cappuccino in Italy without making the shape of a cup with my hands, imitating the sound of a Gaggia machine, and then deciding I’m not thirsty after all.

And yet I am not a xenoglossophobe. From the earliest age I somehow needed, and knew, foreign words and expressions and peppered my conversation with them. Plus ça change, I apparently told my mother at around about the time she was trying to wean me on to the bottle. “Tenho saudades tuas,” I used to write to my grandmother when I was away on holiday, knowing that “Miss you, nanna” inadequately rendered my desolation. And I have rarely been able to go a day since without having recourse to Schadenfreude. How else to universalise the daily satisfactions one takes in the misfortunes of others?

Nothing to inspire Schadenfreude in Gareth Bale’s progress, however. Which might be why questions of the morality of his transfer fee and salary are asked. Money and morality are uncomfortable bedfellows. That money is the root of all evil we know until we make a bit. But cynicism shouldn’t stop us asking how good a thing it is, in tough times, for huge amounts to go to a few people, allowing that one way or another it’s always the poor who finance them.

Real Madrid will recoup its investment many times over, we are told, by marketing the kitsch that goes with sporting celebrity, which means parents who can ill afford it having to buy their offspring shirts with Gareth’s name and number on it. And grown men, who can’t afford it either, will do the same – though they have only their own inanity to blame. If a tattoo is the last resort of the desperate, how lost to self-respect must you be to wear a shirt with someone else’s name on it?

My imagination falters at the moment of wanting, let alone buying, let alone wearing such a thing. I had my idols as a boy, but I still wouldn’t have been seen dead with the words Mrs Gaskell or F R Leavis on my back. And if I saw someone else wearing a shirt emblazoned with the name ’Oward, how would I feel? Reader, that’s eine rhetorische Frage.

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