British players generally adapt to overseas leagues about as well as a snowflake would in Death Valley, so it’s always notable when a leading player takes the plunge and decides to explore the world beyond the white cliffs of Dover. And always disappointing when they return a year or two later, having been unable to handle the lifestyle, tactics, language, beverages …
“I couldn’t settle in Italy,” the former Juventus and Liverpool striker Ian Rush notoriously said in the 1980s. “It was like living in a foreign country.”
English soccer’s favorite troubled maverick, Paul Gascoigne, became a cult figure in Rome with Lazio in the early 1990s but blotted his copybook early on with the club president, Sergio Cragnotti, by telling him in broken Italian: “Your daughter has big tits.”
Although the planet flocks to English soccer, Brits do not globetrot in numbers. Gareth Bale at Real Madrid is the obvious exception. For others, their outlook remains insular even while they play in the world’s most cosmopolitan league, where two-thirds of the faces in the locker-room showcase the benefits of broadened horizons.
Currently there are at least 30 French players in the English Premier League. How many Englishmen in Ligue 1? None. Ten of France’s 23-man roster for last year’s World Cup played in England; only eight were based in France. All of England’s players were located at U.K. clubs.
It’s partly financial, given the high wages at home; but certainly partly cultural, prompted by fear of having to learn a foreign language, drive on the right, sit in cafes drinking very small coffees and show evidence of tactical sophistication and technical ability.
Foreign countries are where British players buy vacation houses in sun-soaked resorts, not where they make their permanent homes. Those who do move abroad tend to return quickly, like backpacking students going abroad on a gap year: it’s an adventure, but one that’s always going to be temporary.
While David Beckham and Steve McManaman thrived at Real Madrid, the oft-injured Jonathan Woodgate and the oft-benched Michael Owen had less enjoyable stays in Spain. Woodgate scored an own goal and was sent off on his debut, ultimately being voted the worst signing of the century by Real fans in a 2007 Marca poll.
Owen was at the Bernabéu for the 2004-05 season, but failed to ever really adapt to life in Madrid. In 2013, he produced a bizarre column for the Daily Telegraph in which he said he loved playing for Real Madrid but had a miserable time off the pitch, mostly due to Spain’s cultural habits and the club putting him up in a hotel for five months:
“Restaurants in Spain do not open until late at night and we could not have our kid staying up to midnight every night. It is just not right when they are two years old. We were putting her down at 7pm, lights off at 7.30, me and my wife would put the one English TV channel on mute while the little one went to sleep … Maybe if the hotel situation had not been such a struggle I might have done another year.”
Owen returned to England with Newcastle and reportedly (though probably apocryphally) made the 320-mile commute from his family home by helicopter.
With Gareth Bale, though, it seemed like things would be different. That he could be a Madrid star for more than a moment. After all, despite doubts about his injury-proneness and limited technique, the first season following his world-record $125 million move from Tottenham Hotspur was a resounding triumph: 15 league goals, a dramatic decider in the Copa del Rey and the extra-time winner in the 4-1 Champions League final victory over Atlético Madrid.
His second season was going fine, too: by the end of January he had scored 14 goals for El Real. But all these goals, all that pace and dynamism, didn’t buy him much insurance with the media or the fans who have taken to jeering him. The team’s recent slump prompted a search for scapegoats that has centered firmly on the Wales forward, despite the squad’s collective loss of form.
Even Israel’s coach felt emboldened enough to join the chorus, ludicrously claiming that Bale isn’t trying hard for El Real because he’s more interested in impressing with Wales.
As the BBC points out, Bale is an obvious and easy target: that record fee, inevitably linking him to the grandiose plans of divisive club president Florentino Perez. There’s also his foreignness. His supposed failure to integrate with his teammates linguistically and socially is now being used as an analogy for his alleged selfishness and individualism on the field.
Madrid may be one of the most famous and influential clubs in the world, with a roster of international superstars, but when results aren’t going as expected, it defaults to the known: conformity above difference; familiarity before variance; the close above the global. There’s an adoration for Isco because he’s both spectacularly talented and spectacularly Spanish, as well as being on El Real‘s payroll. And the familiarity the Bernabéu has with Iker Casillas has undoubtedly helped San Iker preserve his place as well as survive José Mourinho. Others like Karim Benzema have had to overcome unfamiliarity and less certain times before becoming known quantities. Even then, it took more than one-and-a-half decent seasons.
It remains to be seen what effect scoring twice against Levante on Sunday will have on Bale’s status. He’d gone nine games without finding the net, giving critics easy ammunition. After scoring this weekend, Bale cupped his hands to his ears – a not-so-subtle riposte to the crowd, but also perhaps a sign the criticism’s been gotten to him. Already, through press rumors, the groundwork is seemingly being laid for his departure as soon as this summer: family reasons, a hard-to-dispute, face-saving get-out.
It would be a dramatic turnaround, since just a few months ago it seemed feasible the 25-year-old might stay in Spain for many years, eventually becoming Madrid’s talisman when Ronaldo declines or departs. Instead, with Manchester United willing to spend heavily to acquire a British icon, it will be presented as great news for English soccer if Bale returns to the Premier League. The truth is precisely the opposite.