World's most expensive footballer scores on debut and now faces the challenges of househunting and learning Spanish
The Real Madrid coach driver was revving the engine out on Calle Blasco Ibáñez when, well after midnight on Saturday, the man formerly known as the most expensive footballer in the world strode through a heaving mixed zone in El Madrigal. "All right mate," offered Cristiano Ronaldo with a comically broad Oasis lilt as he spied a familiar face from the Manchester press pack amid the huddle at the end of the line. "Don't worry, he's just coming through." And, as the Portuguese departed stage left to put the finishing touches on a new contract back at the Bernabéu, Gareth Bale duly emerged from the changing rooms to walk, head bowed and eyes fixed on the floor, through the throng and away.
The man of the moment did not utter a word on a goalscoring debut that announced his arrival as a Madridista, an entrance as productive as those mustered by Luís Figo, David Beckham and Brazil's Ronaldo before him. The silence was frustrating though, in truth, his brief time at Real to date has been such a blur of grandiose presentations and flash-bulbed media events, the 24-year-old as used to clutching a microphone in his hand as feeling a ball at his feet these days, that he might consider himself due some reticence. He must feel dizzied by the whirlwind still, the 61 minutes of competitive football he had managed against Villarreal tantamount to a respite from the frenzy.
These are Bale's first steps into a new life and, by converting the right-back Daniel Carvajal's low centre seven minutes before the interval on Saturday, he has set the required tone. People will forget that he appeared a little boy lost, a nervy presence consigned to the periphery, over this contest's opening exchanges, a player yearning for match fitness after such a disrupted pre-season. Three days' training with new team-mates after the international break was hardly going to prove sufficient to click into Real's rhythm. Nor has he had the time to grow accustomed to Ronaldo's mannerisms.
The last of those days of hurried preparation had seen the established galáctico leap into a tackle on the new man in a keep-ball kick-around at Ciudad Real Madrid. From the outside, that incident had looked like the Portuguese reasserting some personal authority, fuelling the inevitable conspiracy theories that Ronaldo's ego will not allow him to be usurped as this club's main attraction. "There'll be no issue between those two, none at all," said the assistant manager, Paul Clement, who had been overseeing a drill with another group at the time. "Good players like to work with good players. They'll help each other to achieve things for this club, I'm sure, and if they keep scoring, everyone will be happy." It was Ronaldo who briefly thrust the visitors ahead at Villarreal before another former Tottenham Hotspur player, Giovani dos Santos, rasped in the hosts' deserved equaliser. For Carlo Ancelotti and Co this was two points surrendered at newly promoted if hugely impressive opponents but at least the £166m attacking duo are off the mark in each other's company.
Not that they feel a natural fit as yet. Until Bale conjured his team's leveller, he had appeared uncomfortable in a reactive brief. All free-kicks are the older man's prerogative, the pair's dovetailing still needs work, and it was only when Ronaldo decided to drift to the right that Bale shuffled over to his favoured position on the left. It was from there that he burst beyond Mario Gaspar to score, reward for a performance that had previously been a mishmash of sporadic touches and stifled interchanges, reminding him instantly of his underlying qualities. Authority crept back thereafter.
"He seemed to grow when that went in," said Clement. "I'm sure it was quite a relief. The transfer was a long saga and ate into his pre-season and I'm sure he's glad to get that game out of the way. This is not easy for him but he's got a lot of support here. One of the first things I noticed when I came to Real is how different it is to Paris Saint-Germain. There we were in the early stages of restructuring, while here everything's so well established: the club has become used to foreign coaches and foreign players over many, many years. Everything's in place to give them that support and make that transition for Gareth very easy."
Clement's own presence will be beneficial. The former PE teacher from Sutton has become integral to Ancelotti's back-room staff over spells at Chelsea and PSG, and followed the Italian to Madrid in the summer. The manager may live in a city hotel, the £86m new signing camped on another floor of the same building, but the assistant is already settled in the Spanish capital with his family in a house five minutes from the training ground. He is learning the language, as he sought to do over 18 months in France, and can act as a support for Bale as he did for David Beckham when the former England captain saw out his professional career at Parc des Princes last season.
"I've helped him with some of the communication, at training over set-plays and tactical organisation, things he might not understand straight away because all those drills are done in Spanish," he said. "If he needs anything then I'm here. It's a similar scenario to David: we had a really good relationship, mostly because we were two Englishmen in Paris, and he could always lean on me if he needed to. He did, at times, and having someone else around who spoke the same language helped him settle in France. It's an outlet sometimes, a bit of relief when you're still trying to get to grips with the language.
"Gareth and I can develop the same kind of professional relationship here and help each other. I'd been in France a while by the time David arrived but I know how Carlo works and, if I can pass on anything to Gareth to make him feel more at home, then great. He's got a good friend in Luka Modric, who played with him at Spurs and is almost acting as his interpreter at the minute. That helps. And Carlo speaks good English, too. But Gareth seems relaxed already in the dressing room. This is a good bunch of guys who have been very welcoming to us all.
"You do feel the history of the place. The expectation, too. And you're not allowed to forget what representing Real means. It dawns on you pretty quickly just what you're buying into. The strange thing is that when you're on the inside you learn to appreciate this is a football team with normal guys, normal training, normal preparation for games. The difference is what's happening outside that bubble: the interest, the expectation, the pressure. That's what takes time to accept and understand. Getting down to the normal, everyday work can feel like a bit of a relief."
It is wrong to judge Bale on this display. A player saddled by a stunted pre-season could hardly expect to burst on to the scene displaying the same swagger and assurance with which he graced the Premier League so startlingly last term. He was always going to appear rusty at El Madrigal, a strangely ramshackle arena for the most costly club side ever assembled – Real's lineup cost in the region of €400m – to showcase its potential, and that might explain the visiting media manager's explanation that the player "might" be more open to offer his own post-match assessment after next weekend's visit of Getafe to the Bernabéu.
Games will tune his approach. He will have graced the Champions League again by then, Tuesday's trip to Galatasaray frustrating the player's attempts to seek out a house of his own back in Madrid, even if his representatives will be scouting out properties in his absence. It will take time to settle, on and off the pitch. But, for now, the initial impression is promising.
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