by Rob Shepherd.
Gareth Bale’s imminent move to Real Madrid elevates him to the status of Galactico, at least until the business of playing the game, rather than the transfer roulette table, starts.
Many in Spain have already cast doubt about the wisdom of the Spanish club spending so much (in the region of £86 million) on the back of just two exhilarating seasons for Tottenham.
A big fish from a small pool? Few if any see him as remotely in the class of Cristiano Ronaldo or for that matter Brazilian Neymar, a player Madrid courted but who opted to sign for Barcelona for a transfer fee of ‘just’ £49million this summer.
And off the pitch it’s difficult to imagine how Bale can match either on the commercial front especially when it comes to selling shirts, a significant factor in the mega money that has been spent on the 24 year old Welshman.
After all – and this is not Bale’s fault of course – this is a player who won’t be playing at the World Cup finals next summer.
A Lot to Prove
While there are many who will argue that David Beckham never really lived up to the billing of Galactico on the pitch, he overwhelmingly did deliver for Madrid when it came to flogging merchandise, especially in the Far East.
So Bale has to hit the ground running if he is to win over some of the most demanding and influential fans in the world.
On that front he is hindered by the fact that he has not had a proper pre-season because of injury and the protracted transfer saga.
The pressure on Bale is not helped when the money involved in his move has been dismissed by Barcelona’s coach Gerado Martino as “A lack of respect for the world we live in.”
If he doesn’t produce magic from the off – by definition Galactico’s have to be more than just star turns – then he could suffer in the way Michael Owen did whose move from Liverpool proved a disaster.
Jonathan Woodgate is one of five British players to preceede Bale at the Bernebau but he probably remains baffled how he ever ended up there in the first place.
The Other Two ?
Well, Steve McManaman did better than most think and has two European Cup winners’ medals and a great goal in one of the finals as evidence.
And there was the first: Laurie Cunningham.
It was in the summer of 1979 that Cunningham moved from West Bromwich Albion to Real Madrid for what was then the staggering fee of £950,000.
He was an instant hit. In his first season Cunningham, who like Bale was just 24 when he joined the club, helped Madrid win a league and cup double.
Although a sequence of injuries undermined him thereafter, Cunningham remains a legend among the Madrid fans of that era.
Spain’s current national coach Vicente del Bosque puts Cunningham into huge context by comparing him favourably with Cristiano Ronaldo.
Del Bosque says: “I don’t think his qualities were any less than Cristiano Ronaldo.
“He came to Real Madrid after having played a great game against Valencia for West Bromwich Albion in the UEFA Cup, and Madrid viewed him as one of the most distinguished players in Europe.
“I think that was a period in Madrid’s history where there weren’t many international signings and the club made a big effort, financially, to sign Laurie, to sign a star because all of the rest of us were from the youth team.
“Truly, he was fast and agile, very dynamic, had a good shot and he could head well.”
Although Cunningham was the first black player to represent England when he played for the under 21 side in 1977 he was shockingly overlooked by Ron Greenwood, not just because of some injuries but because he had opted to play in Spain and made just six full international appearances.
As former England star John Barnes points out, Cunningham was not just ahead of his time in terms of breaking down racial barriers in English football but also in terms of the way he played, which despite race issues in Spain still made him so popular in Madrid.
“He was probably ahead of his time in English football in terms of the way he played, not just as a black English player” says Barnes.
“I suppose that Laurie didn’t really have the impact for England that he should have had. For a winger to have played with the flamboyance that he did, also to come in field and do what he did, he was like Cristiano Ronaldo.
“I mean, this Fancy Dan with all of these tricks and skills, everybody loves that now but Laurie was doing that back in the ’70s. He was standing on the ball, and rolling his foot over the ball, but he wasn’t appreciated because that wasn’t what the good old English players do. We just get stuck in…”
Bale does a bit more than get stuck in but it remains to be seen whether his style, based on surging runs rather than subtle chicanery, and over reliance on his left foot will come close to wooing the fans like Cunningham did or Ronaldo does.
Cunningham returned to England in the mid-Eighties but then drifted around Europe until ending his career with Wimbledon.
Having graced the Bernebau, playing at Plough Lane really was a case of shifting from Culture Club to the Crazy Gang. But there was a bonus; Cunningham, who began his career with east London club Orient, picked up an FA Cup winners medal coming on as substitute in the 1988 final victory over Liverpool.
Tragically Laurie Cunningham, who had returned to live in Madrid, died in a car crash the following summer. He was just 33.