The talents of Gareth Bale have, for a number of years now, been undeniable. Until last week, his transfer to Real Madrid was the most expensive in history because of that talent, and he’s one of the biggest stars in the world for very good reason. But one thing he’d never really shown is a tendency towards real leadership — until that changed this summer.
The first seeds of Bale becoming a leader on the field were planted when Wales were still in the midst of their incredible qualifying run ahead of Euro 2016, but it was at the tournament in France itself when we really saw him start to blossom. While his efforts to inspire and drive his teammates weren’t as obvious and publicized as those of his Real Madrid teammate Cristiano Ronaldo, they were definitely there.
Frequently Bale could be seen pulling aside a teammate during a stoppage in play to give him directions or advice, or just to try to pick him up a bit if he was struggling. Even when Bale wasn’t playing at his best, he still did everything in his power to make sure that Wales got the result they needed. They ultimately fell short, beaten by Ronaldo and eventual champions Portugal in the semi-final, but they got that far because of Bale, and for reasons far beyond his talent.
Many who had noticed these traits emerging in Bale wondered how they would carry over when he went back to Real Madrid, and not without reason. With louder voices who have been a major part of the club for much longer like Ronaldo, Pepe, Sergio Ramos and Marcelo all around him, it’d be easy to see Bale just fading back into the rest of the crowd, letting his newfound qualities lapse.
Instead, Bale has stepped up bigger than ever. In Madrid’s win over Real Sociedad to kick off 2016's La Liga season, Bale scored just 90 seconds into the match, and he didn’t stop impacting the game there.
Despite their early lead, Madrid didn’t exactly look strong and settled, as several injuries forced them to play a side rather less than ideal for the defending Champions League winners, including the absence of Ronaldo on the left wing across from Bale.
Knowing that his team needed him, Bale almost literally put the team on his back and carried them on to victory, absolutely dominating Sociedad in the final third and constantly working with his teammates to patch up any weaknesses or flaws he saw in his team. Everywhere Real Madrid needed Bale to be, he was there, fighting tooth and nail to make sure his team held the advantage.
They would score a second goal before halftime, a sensational strike from a young player in Marco Asensio, a 20- year-old winger whom Bale was frequently talking to and guiding when he had the opportunity. Bale’s efforts were rewarded with an important win for his club, and by a third goal deep in stoppage time, a goal brought about by, surprise, hard work and unyielding effort on Bale’s part.
While the scoreline would say that Madrid dominated on the day, and while they certainly performed well on a whole, it’s also easy to see how they could have lost without Bale. The first half saw Sociedad leave Madrid’s midfield or defense shaken after a mistake several times, only for Bale to respond by making a thundering run to pin their opponents back again and give his teammates a chance to breathe and pick up their confidence again. If things got too desperate in defense, Bale would come charging in to make his presence felt, often disrupting whatever efforts Sociedad’s attack was trying to put together to get a goal off their rivals.
It was a tremendous performance from Bale on so many levels, and it looks like a sign of things to come. He has taken a big step up over these past few months, not just as a player full of technique and skill and guile, but in one of the most important areas a player of any sport can develop: leadership. That ability to direct and inspire and push his teammates to ever-higher levels, an ability that many players hope to find in themselves but few ever do. Bale has that ability — he’s shown it for Wales, and now he’s showing it for Real Madrid. For a player already sure to be one of the best of his era, that quality could be what turns Bale into a Madrid legend.