Madrid, Spain – In a country where football rivals religion in importance, Gareth Bale’s gesture was tantamount to blasphemy.
The Real Madrid and Wales footballer unfurled a banner after his national squad sealed their Euro 2020 qualification, which made his priorities clear. It read: “Wales, Golf, Madrid: In that order.”
A furious Spanish media condemned the player’s joke made at the expense of one of the world’s biggest football clubs. The club pays him an annual 15 million euro ($16.6m) for his services on the pitch, and not, as outraged Spaniards point out, to make jokes.
The banner was unfurled as Bale celebrated with fellow Wales players after beating Hungary 2-0 in European qualifiers in Cardiff on Tuesday.
It was a direct response to criticism of him by former Madrid player Predrag Mijatovic, who said on Spanish radio that Bale put Wales and golf before Madrid.
Instead of ignoring the comment, Bale turned it into a joke. Unfortunately for him, nobody in Spain was laughing.
— Red Welsh FC (@RedWelshFC) November 19, 2019
“Disrespectful, Misguided, Ungrateful,” read the front-page headline of Marca, Spain’s biggest selling sports newspaper.
AS, another significant sport daily, wrote: “Bale qualifies for the Euros and makes fun of Madrid.”
Barcelona-based Sport’s headline called it: “The straw that broke the camel’s back,” suggesting that Bale’s celebration could bring his six years at the club to an end.
It also prompted scores of memes on social media.
One featured Florentino Perez, owner of Real Madrid, holding a Welsh flag with the words “stand, fine, sack: in that order” – a reference to Gale’s possible punishment.
The reaction is indicative of how football is viewed in Spain, where anything less than total devotion to Real Madrid or their arch-rivals Barcelona is not tolerated.
Bale has frequently angered fans of los merengues [the whites, Madrid’s nickname] by saying he preferred playing for Wales than the Spanish side.
“I definitely have more excitement playing for Wales,” Bale said in a recent interview.
“It’s like playing with your mates down the park on a Sunday. With Wales, I’m speaking my own language and feel more comfortable. But it doesn’t change what I do on the pitch. I always give 100 percent on the pitch wherever I am; that’s what I always strive to do.”
The episode with the banner is sure to widen a growing chasm between Bale and Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane, who last year said the club was close to selling the player.
Bale is still with Real Madrid, but he has only made erratic appearances.
Even his golfing has caused problems.
At least twice he has picked up injuries after having played golf, and Madrid’s fans and powerful sports media often link the two.
Graham Hunter, a journalist who writes about Spanish football, said: “Madrid have been trying to persuade Bale to play less golf for years – they think it contributes to his injuries. He refuses.
“The Madrid media have been pillorying him endlessly and unnecessarily – so I guess a dig back was overdue.”
In 2013, Madrid paid a then world-record 100 million euro (then $132m) to sign Bale from Tottenham Hotspur.
He has scored some spectacular goals, with superstar performances in finals for the Champions League and Spain’s Copa del Rey. But injuries and long stretches of uninspired play have left club fans and staffing believing him unreliable.
Jose Mourinho’s hiring by Tottenham has also kindled speculation that Bale’s former English club could be willing to buy him back in the winter transfer window.