Gareth Bale: The Wrong Choice, For Some Of The Right Reasons

MILAN ITALY - OCTOBER 20: Gareth Bale of Tottenham Hotspur scores his third goal during the UEFA Champions League Group A match between FC Internazionale Milano and Tottenham Hotspur at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on October 20 2010 in Milan Italy. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

It was probably the wrong call, and everybody's noticed. PFA Player of the Year Gareth Bale -- lovely, amiable, Astroboy-a-like that he is; Welsh hero that he will hopefully become -- has not been the best player in the Premier League this season.

Indeed, he hasn't even been the best player at Tottenham, an accolade I give to Luka Modric from Rafael van der Vaart, by a nose. His league numbers are some distance south of impressive: 7 goals (= Jermaine Beckford); one assist (= Ali al Habsi!); fewer goalscoring chances created than his Welsh counterpart Simon Davies of Fulham (43 to 50, via Opta). He can and he has been domestically shackled, whether with nous (Phil Neville) or with youthful brio (Rafael). If he is shown inside while still accelerating, if he is forced onto his weaker foot, if the space in behind is covered, he can be neutered. Not literally.

And of course, the moments that have defined his season, established his reputation, and set in motion a petty and tiresome hither-and-yon of hype and backlash, have come in the Champions League, a competition theoretically out of the ambit of the award. Maicon, presumably, didn't get to vote.

The PFA Player of the Year award is a problematic, nonsensical, and probably irrelevant bauble. For mysterious reasons the players vote halfway through the season, and it is fair to presume that their votes (as, perhaps, with all secret ballots of any kind) are coloured as much by their personal antipathy towards Nani a candidate as by any calculus of worth or impact. Then there is the strong suspicion that many footballers don't participate; I have it on good authority, for instance, that Mario Balotelli voted for himself three times and then ate the ballot paper. This year, too, the voting has thrown up a glorious moment of facepalmistry with the proclamation of Jack Wilshere as young player of the year, making him officially and incontrovertibly better than all other footballers that began the season aged under 23.

Including Gareth Bale.

The temptation is to suppose that footballers are thick and easily led, and so will vote for whoever's on the backpages of the newspapers that accompany the ballot through the letterbox, or whatever football mansions have. (Stephen Ireland employs a miniature snow leopard, dyed baby pink, to stand at attention by the door. The leopard accepts the delivery from the terrified postman and then pads silently through the house with an air of latent, tasteless menace and a mouthful of utility bills.) And doubtless, hype and the timing of the vote played a part. But a more speculative reason for the vote occurred to me; it's possibly nonsense, but let's give it a whirl.

Fans and journalists relate to and evaluate footballers in a certain way: with bias, with love or hate, and sometimes with a critical, analytical and disinterested eye. But I think it's fair to suggest that footballers relate to other footballers in a different way; partly as colleagues, partly as friends or enemies, partly -- and I think crucially -- as opponents.

When faced with an opponent, any rational individual (or any rational individual's manager) considers the capabilities of that opponent not as they are in general or on average but as they might be in their fullest degree. What is the most damage that this player can do, and how can I combat it? For a right-back, right-winger or central defender, therefore, the Gareth Bale they prepare to face is the Gareth Bale that humiliated one of the world's best right backs, shredded the defence of the European champions, and slapped three glorious goals past a floundering Julio Cesar. That's who you'll be playing against. Watch the video. Watch it again. Watch it again. That's what the boy can do. Now don't let him.

And then, after the match, when you've done your job and removed Bale from your pocket, do you trot off thinking "that lad, not much cop". Or do you congratulate yourself on a superb day's work, tell yourself that you kept one of the best wingers in the league - no, in Europe! - nice and quiet, and pat yourself firmly on the back? The scale of your own achievement is measured relative to his ability: the better Bale is, the better you are. By playing brilliantly outside the league, Bale has made himself into a great player; by playing (relatively) poorly within the league, he's made his opponents feel great too. So they vote for him.

All of the above is, admittedly, the purest of conjecture: I have never been a professional footballer; I don't know if this is how it works. But as a tentative explanation for a puzzling choice, it at least offers more than just deriding the electorate. And there might even be a simpler alternative. By playing well in Europe, Bale has ensured that he does his best work to the largest available audience of his peers. Most Premier League footballers, after all, are free during the week, but busy on Saturday afternoons.

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