Gareth Bale is thriving with added responsibility for club and country.
Sunday was a day of unfamiliar experiences for Gareth Bale. Firstly, he suffered his first loss of the season. Secondly, it came while wearing the armband.
No shame in losing to Denmark, a side that World Cup finalists Croatia need penalties to beat this summer. Christian Eriksen won the duel of team talismans, scoring twice on a day where Bale seemed to be trying a little too hard to make his mark.
It’s understandable. The chance to captain your country doesn’t come around every day, and Wales manager Ryan Giggs giving that opportunity to Bale was a sign of how far the Real Madrid star has come in such a short time since the summer, when his club future was in doubt even after he’d scored a wonderful bicycle kick in the Champions League final.
Offered the chance to step out of the shadow of Madrid’s greatest ever player, and given the backing of his new manager Julen Lopetegui, the Welshman has been starring for his club, scoring in each of his team’s opening three games of the La Liga season.
He added another goal for Wales last week as they beat Ireland, and though he’ll be disappointed that his scoring streak ended on Sunday, there’s a definite sense that Bale is relishing being centre-stage in a way that he has only fleetingly been since leaving Tottenham in 2013.
Since then, there’s been a sense that he was a cut below the elite. When the Real Madrid vs Barcelona rivalry was boiled down to ‘BBC’ vs ‘MSN’, there was no doubt that Ronaldo and Lionel Messi were equals and Karim Benzema had built enough of a reputation as a striker that he could match up to Luis Suarez. Bale vs Neymar? It’s still a slightly unfair comparison now, but two or three years ago it was absolutely far-fetched.
And, of course, his injury history during his time in Madrid has left his own fans rather disappointed with him. A few months ago the Santiago Bernabeu was booing him and fans were calling for him to be sold – and the club were considering it. But he’s certainly got the home crowd on his side now.
There was Euro 2016, of course, where he was the clear star player in a Wales side that surpassed all expectations by reaching the semi-finals, but even then, his narrative was engulfed in the larger story of a plucky Wales side conquering everyone before them.
Now, however, Bale is the story.
When Ronaldo left, questions about Bale followed Lopetegui around all summer. Could he step up? Would he finally be a true star, rather than just a glamorous support act, with a few moments of stealing the limelight interspersed between long spells of disappointment.
Lopetegui always answered in the affirmative, and Bale is repaying his manager’s faith. The player Madrid have seen so far this season is one who hasn’t often shown up at the club. He’s delivered some outstanding moments, to be sure, but this is a Bale playing with confidence.
It helps that he knows his spot in Lopetegui’s starting XI is secure, something he could never be sure of under Zidane.
That confidence is translating to form on the pitch, where he’s got four goals and two assists in six games for club and country this season. But the biggest way his confidence is improving his game is the way it’s getting people to place their confidence in him.
Lopetegui trusts him to be the star player for one of the biggest clubs in the world. Giggs trusts him to be his captain.
Finally, Gareth Bale has arrived.