Bale's timely return helps Real Madrid and reminds critics he is needed
Gareth Bale wasn't supposed to be on a rescue mission. It was supposed to be enough for him to jog onto the Bernabeu pitch, run about a bit, kick the ball a few times and not get injured again. On Tuesday morning, the headline on the front page of sports newspaper Marca read: "They need you" but no one really thought they did. Not that night anyway; the future might be a different matter. And yet it turned out they did need him after all and, for Bale, it was better that way.
At quarter to 11 on a cold, wet night in the Copa del Rey round-of-32 second leg, Second Division B leaders Fuenlabrada led Madrid 1-0. Luis Milla -- you may remember him -- had smashed a shot that went in off Keylor Navas and the bar to open the scoring. Two questionable penalties had handed Madrid a 2-0 win at the Fernando Torres stadium five long weeks before, seemingly ending the tie as a contest, but now it was revived and another Fuenlabrada goal would take the game to extra time.
Increasingly, that looked plausible. It wasn't just the score; it was the sensations. This wasn't some fluke; this was football. Tuesday's game started with Hugo Fraile shooting over and it didn't end there: Fuenlabrada had control and chances. On the touchline, manager Antonio Calderón was ready to make a change and Dioni Villalba, one of five regulars that had started on the bench, was standing there. Nicknamed "Bisho" -- "the beast" -- one opposition manager had described him as the Lionel Messi of Segunda B. Now he was coming on and Fuenlabrada were going for it. "We made Madrid a little scared," Calderón said later.
But as Dioni waited, to his left stood Bale. Against Borussia Dortmund on Sept. 27, he sat on the turf, holding his calf. "It was nothing," Zinedine Zidane said afterwards, just a bit of cramp. But it took 63 days for the Welshman to return. Bale had been on the verge of making a comeback for the Madrid derby on Nov. 18, with his manager expressing satisfaction that he could spend the whole of the international break working together with Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo.
"We won't hold back; the idea is to push him, have him back as soon as possible," Zidane had said. But two days later, Bale pulled up again, muscle torn. It was his 19th injury since joining Madrid as the world's most expensive player in 2014. He had played 159 games for the clubs out of a possible 250. Over the last two seasons he has played just 41 percent of the available minutes.
And so here he was, back again, for a tentative, supposedly gentle return. A couple of days earlier Bale's agent Jonathan Barnett hit out at Spanish journalists, saying they "write rubbish" and fail to base articles on "football reasons," adding it "hurt" Bale that fans didn't always support him the way that they supported other players. There have been whistles at times, it is true. But, as he stood, ready to come on vs. Fuenlabrada, there was a roar and applause. They needed him.
Cata Díaz hit the bar, the away side's second goal millimetres away. Next thing you knew, the ball came to Bale on the right. He took one touch, two, three, and then curled a gorgeous pass with the outside of his foot towards Borja Mayoral. His header, like Cata's, hit the bar; unlike Cata's it rebounded in, not out. The pass was just the start. Soon, the ball dropped near the edge of the penalty area; Bale flicked it forward with his heel and ran onto it. Pol Freixanet saved the shot but, from the rebound, Mayoral scored again.
Although a goal from Bale was ruled out for offside and Fuenlabrada got a late equaliser which, if they didn't deserve it, was only because they deserved more, Madrid were through. In seven minutes and six touches Bale had changed everything. "The only good news was Bale," ran the headline of El Mundo. The front of Madrid's two big sports dailies said essentially the same thing: "Bale avoids a disaster," was the Marca verdict; "Bale avoids a Fuenlabradazo," AS said.
At the final whistle, he shook hands with Juan Barrasa Quero and was the first down the tunnel, where he greeted other Fuenlabrada players and staff. He didn't talk to the media but did tweet: "Really enjoyed being back out there and even better to be in the next round." The latter should never have been in doubt but it was, until he arrived.
Bale needed the minutes, but that was supposed to be all he needed; just another step towards a full recovery. Yet watching the reaction, maybe he also needed a night like this. More to the point, maybe there are people he needed to see him have a night like this; people he needed to need him.
Few doubt that Bale is immensely talented, an extraordinary athlete and decisive on his day. His Copa del Rey final goal in 2014 remains in the memory and many Madrid fans will tell you that he was their best player in the Champions League final in Milan two years later. They know that, in four years with him, they have won three European Cups -- Madrid had won none in the previous twelve years -- and recall the way he took responsibility in the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo. His contract renewal last year was seen as a step towards his succession and a future Balon d'Or. No one questioned it then, or almost no one.
But that feels like another time, perhaps something that had slipped away for good. Some doubted Bale's suitability within a more technical, patient style, or how well he fitted a right-sided role and, still less, the No. 10 position he coveted. There have been complaints about how little Spanish he spoke -- even on Tuesday, one radio presenter asked Borja how he and Bale communicate -- and that was often taken as a lack of commitment, as if it was easy. Bale insists he has tried; language just isn't his thing.
Above all, though, there were the injuries. There is no escaping a basic truth: Bale has missed an awful lot of games. Too many, particularly for a player who cost so much. Some necessity to get on with things in his absence, to effectively ignore him, is normal; frustration is also natural, as is fatalism, a willingness to give up on him. But there's a touch of cruelty in the way that new setbacks were greeted as if they were somehow Bale's fault. Rather than compassion there was irritation, even suspicion.
Last year Bale admitted that he came back too soon from an injury that saw ligament came clean away from his ankle. He was desperate to make it to the Champions League final in his home city of Cardiff and he rushed. He took pain killers regularly and admitted thinking "other things." The choice of words was vague and he denied that they meant giving up, but admitted he had suffered. No one really sees the rehabilitation, the work, the pain.
For fans to give up is human, as is feeling like a player can't be relied upon and especially when there are others who can be. When Bale was out last year, Madrid found a solution and a system that arguably improved them. They also "discovered" Isco. In the final months of the season, Madrid were superb and Toni Kroos admitted that he was happier with an extra man in midfield. There was more control, more possession. Bayern, Atlético Madrid and Juventus were beaten as Madrid won a league and European Cup double for the first time in 59 years.
Maybe they didn't need Bale. AS started writing "BBC" as "bbC" in news pieces, not just opinion columns because, they said, Benzema and Bale simply weren't up to Cristiano. There was support for the Welshman from president Florentino Perez but it is also true the club opened the door to his departure in the summer, just a fraction. They tested the water, wondering what would happen.
When Madrid failed to sign Kylian Mbappé, in part because they were not able to make a space for him by moving one of the front three, it became another thing that was Bale's "fault." Watching Mbappé play for Paris Saint-Germain, some supporters and media wondered if this was a big mistake; some revelled in suggesting so. "Always injured" became an inescapable phrase. Some had given up and last season had shown that they might not need him anymore.
But context is everything: When results go against a team, sometimes the best thing for a player is to be absent. Since winning in Dortmund, Madrid's season has slipped and his importance has appeared to increase, just as it decreased last season, without him actually doing anything. They started to remember him once more; started to miss him again.
The fact that he came back and did what he did on Tuesday was reinforcement, making it a better return than he could have imagined. Even if it was only against Fuenlabrada, it was timely reminder of what he can do, that he is a Real Madrid player and an exceptional one. One they need: A solution, not a problem.
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.