Gareth Bale is a one-off. How many British players leave English football and go on to adapt and find success in a different footballing culture, let alone win the European Cup at the first time of asking?
And that’s the problem. Forget the Champions League for a moment and look to the success Bale has had in his first season at Real Madrid. He hasn’t been perfect, but he’s been effective in big games throughout the season and has hit 22 goals and provided 16 more in all competitions. Think what he could do with a full pre-season under his belt and with a year of knowledge to draw from. There were doubts after his £86million move from Spurs last season, but Bale hasn’t just been a passenger in Real’s two trophy successes this season; he’s very much been at the centre of them both.
It should act as encouragement for other Premier League-based players to explore opportunities abroad. Far too many seem content to sit on their current wages, even if it means playing little to no part in a season. A couple at Manchester City spring to mind: Jack Rodwell and Scott Sinclair. Of course, it’s not to say clubs the size of Real Madrid will come in for every player who shows a willingness to sample life outside of England, but the chance for players to prevent their careers from stalling will be greater.
You wonder if it is just the cultural aspect of it. Are many British players good enough to play outside of the Premier League, or even the Championship? The rough and tumble of English football can mask the weaknesses and technical deficiencies of many players. That doesn’t apply to Gareth Bale, of course, but where we often look at foreign players and question their durability and ultimately their suitability for English football, whether it be players from Spain, Italy or wherever, similar questions can also be asked of the reverse, when British players go abroad. Are they technically good enough for La Liga, or tactically good enough for Serie A?
Maybe that’s the problem. Because it’s very difficult to believe that every British player has the same mentality of fearing the unknown outside of their comfort zone. The gaps are too big between the recent big names who have gone abroad: Bale, Michael Owen, David Beckham, Steve McManaman. The frequency of British players going abroad was higher before the Premier League era began, and perhaps it needs someone like Bale to set that trend again.
What Bale has shown is that if the application is right, if a player’s mental state allows him to properly take in his new surroundings and prepare accordingly, he will find success. Certainly not always to Bale’s level, but just as a means to starting a new chapter in a footballing career, getting games, learning from a different culture and becoming a better player – and I have no doubt that Real Madrid and Carlo Ancelotti will improve Bale as a player.
Think what it will do for the England national team. All of the nation’s footballers are learning from the same book, and evidently it’s been far from successful. Every now and then one slips through and proves to be far better than the rest, but rarely are they able to make up for the lack of quality throughout the rest of the team and turn England’s entry into an international tournament into anything beyond an embarrassment and a failure.
Footballers, particularly younger players, will learn a lot from going abroad. There’s no harm in it. If it’s not to their liking, they can simply angle for a move away. It happens enough in England, why should it be any different on the continent?
Coincidentally, Tom Ince is said to be in Italy to negotiate a move to Inter Milan. It’s surprising, it’s from way out in left field, but it’s promising and good to see. Obviously British youngsters look up to clubs like Manchester United and Liverpool, just as South Americans admire Real Madrid and Barcelona. But the prestige of foreign clubs isn’t lost on British players. Why wouldn’t a good player want to go to Juventus or Bayern or even Ajax?
Gareth Bale has been a resounding success in his first season in Spain. It says a lot about him as a person, both in his absolute drive to become a Real Madrid player and in the way he’s adapted to a new country, arguably the world’s biggest club and, importantly, to a group of new teammates.
Bale has made the impossible look easy – that being moving abroad made to appear a gargantuan task that has failure written all over it. It would be a pleasant change if there were a few more like him.