June 28, 2021

Article at Mark on Authory

Gareth Bale – The non-conformist feeding a media clickbait frenzy

More column inches were devoted to Gareth Bale's refusal to answer a post-match question than there were about his contribution to Wales reaching the round of 16 at EURO 2020. His actions rather than words response when asked about his future in the aftermath of Wales' elimination in Amsterdam generated thousands of lines of speculation and video plays.

Earlier in the tournament, Portuguese talisman Cristiano Ronaldo equalled the international world goalscoring record held by Iran's Ali Daei as he scored his 108th and 109th goals for his country in the 2-2 with France in Budapest. However, his dominant headline of the tournament revolved around his removal of two bottles of sugary water from his press conference table.

Making headlines for all the wrong reasons

The situation with Ronaldo was a microcosm of how football media has evolved in the modern game, and certainly not for the better. Portugal's exit at the hands of Belgium on Sunday evening means that Ronaldo will need to wait a little longer to break the record, and when he does, don't expect the media reaction to match his indirect advertisement for water.

Bale has been subjected to intense media scrutiny since he completed his then world-record move from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid in the summer of 2013. It is a situation that comes with the territory in the Spanish capital, and the constant demand for drama is draining. Since the day that Bale arrival in Madrid, speculation over his future has been a consistent news story.

The closing stages of the 4-0 defeat against Denmark in Amsterdam were particularly frustrating as two late goals and a red card for Harry Wilson brought the tournament to an end for Wales in the worst possible way. Looking mentally and physically drained with an acceptance that the journey was over in the final moments, the professional mask slipped as the emotion of the occasion took over even the most-experienced members of the squad.

There are post-match media requirements that must be fulfilled, and any defeated player and manager will tell you that these are the last thing they want to do in such situations, especially when the emotions are still so very raw. Shortly after the final whistle, Bale complied with his duties as captain, and offered the regular sound bites on the game and the tournament as a whole.

When the guard slipped

I have interviewed Bale on a number of occasions, both in the immediate post-match flash situation and in the relaxed confines of the team base in the build-up to games. There is a professionalism to his persona once the recording light turns red which rarely slips. Asked about his future by the BBC in the immediate aftermath of the defeat, Bale answered in his actions rather than words in showing his contempt for the question.

More interviews like this for other broadcasters immediately followed. Moving from one station to the next, Bale would have answered similar questions on the game, the defeat and Wales' performance at the tournament multiple times before returning to the changing room to gather his thoughts on the fact that his country had failed to emulate their achievements of 2016. But the headlines had already been written.

Bale would later speak to former Wales team-mate Owain Tudur Jones as part of S4C's coverage. Showered and changed since his initial post-match interview, Bale would also have been made aware of the media frenzy that was developing. Asked a similar question, Bale confirmed his commitment to his country ahead of the return to World Cup qualification in September.

There are many factors that determined the different reaction to the same fundamental question, ranging from his relationship with a former team-mate in comparison to a reporter, to the cooling-off period that had elapsed since his initial interview and his awareness of the spark it had caused. The headlines that followed show the weight of scrutiny that players like Bale must perform and live under every day of every week of every year.

The human side of the modern superstar

Before you highlight any obvious irony in this article, take a look around, there are no adverts to click and no revenue will be generated by accessing this page. It is merely to pull back the curtain a little and highlight the level of media intensity that occurs at moments of high-emotion and how players are expected to respond in a robotic manner and repress their natural reaction to the occasion.

While it hasn't done him any favours, it was good to see Bale show his true emotion in front of the camera. There is no doubt that representing his country means everything to him, and the manner of the defeat against Denmark hurt because he cares that much. Criticism of the line of questioning was more in hindsight to the response, although his experience should have prepared him for what was likely to come.

It is clear that eight years at Real Madrid has taken its toll on Bale, and while he is not the first or last player to fall out of favour with a manager at the Santiago Bernabeu, it has stripped some of his passion for the game. However, while representing Wales has offered a release from the pressure that surrounds his club career, the status of competing at the finals of a major tournament has attracted similar media scrutiny.

Bale has not necessarily towed the accepted line when it comes to discussing Real Madrid in the media, and such behaviour is considered a slur on the club when it makes a controversial headline. His honesty is seen by the club and its fans to be a non-conformist attitude, but in reality he should be commended for challenging the accepted protocol in highlighting the failures in his relationship with his employers, and let people form their own opinion from the evidence available.

The future

The escapism that Bale has found in international football appears to have been breached in the last few days with a level of media distrust evident in an environment where he has previously been able to show a natural side to his character. The teasing lines of EURO 2016 about England were replaced this time around with a serious conformity until his guard finally slipped.

Whatever happens with Bale at Real Madrid over the course of the next few weeks will not alter his commitment to Wales, and while he continues to play professional football, he will continue to lead his country. He has worked successfully with Carlo Ancelotti in the past and this could be the reunion he needs if he is to stay in the Spanish capital, but there are many external factors that will dictate his future.

As for Wales, the side went further than eight other nations at EURO 2020, and at the time of writing, find themselves eliminated at the same stage as the Netherlands and holders Portugal. Qualifying for two consecutive EURO finals and progressing through the group stages on each occasion is a commendable achievement, especially taking into account the number of well-documented factors that worked against them.

Manager Rob Page has impressed after taking over the job in difficult circumstances, and he will have learnt more about himself as a person and a coach during the last few weeks than at any other time in his career. He has the respect of the players, and while the future of Ryan Giggs remains in the balance, he is the only viable candidate to continue in the role in order to ensure a level of consistency ahead of the return to World Cup qualification.

Time of transition

But that does mean Page making some big decisions, and he may need to develop a new approach having been outsmarted in the defeat against Denmark. There are options within the squad, and with the number of young players available this now becomes a significant period of transition prompted by the performances at EURO 2020. This is a talented generation, and it is important that the potential within it does not go to waste.

Bale was a key member of the squad at EURO 2016 and at EURO 2020, and he will have an equally important role to play in World Cup qualification. He will see this as his last chance to play at the finals of the World Cup, and there could be no greater legacy than leading his country there for the first time since 1958. With that in mind, questions over his international future do seem ridiculous, but they still make headlines.