On Wednesday night former Spurs player Gareth Bale scored the late goal that won the Copa Del Rey for his current club, Real Madrid. If you haven’t seen it, congratulations – your willpower to stay away from social media and the press is far greater than mine.
By any standards it was a jaw-droppingly remarkable piece of football. Picking up a pass from defence on the halfway line, Bale couldn’t get past the defender in front of him so he decided to go round him. He knocked the ball past his man and ran. However, the defender wasn’t to be beaten so easily. Turning quickly, he had the inside track. The ball was his.
That logic would have defeated most players. If not, the nudge he received as he came close would have done the trick. Most would have gone down in an imploring heap, bleating to the ref as they plunged to the turf. But Bale kept going. No way through so like Lewis Hamilton on a fast corner at Silverstone he left the defender on the racing line and put the pedal to the metal. To get round he went a couple of metres off the pitch, through the technical areas and when he was back on the field, the ball was his.
Full-pelt he carried on with the ball at his feet, the full-back forlorn, desperate and beaten. He bore down on the keeper then with the ball perfectly in his stride went from power to delicacy in an instant and touched it home.
There’s more. Here’s the context. This full-tilt 50 metres in 8 seconds with a ball at his feet and a defender in his wake took place in the 86th minute. Bale had had a good game, working hard up front interchanging with Real’s main striker Benzema. It was a final against Real’s biggest rivals, Barcelona. The score was 1-1 at the time, a tight game heading inexorably for extra time and penalties. This was no ordinary goal, this was the stuff of legend. Whatever he accomplishes in the future, he will never be forgotten by Real supporters.
Most of the photos I use on Tottenham On My Mind are of the goals themselves but the one at the head of this article tells the real story of this goal and of the nature of football itself, what it meant to the crowd. In it, Bale soars in majestic isolation, as if born aloft by the tumult. The reality is more prosaic – he was alone because none of his team-mates could keep up with him.
Like I said, remarkable. Moments like these are precious, the reason why I remain unshakably fascinated by the game as I approach my sixties. Nothing else does it like football – the shared experience, the unsurpassed passion, that unique combination of improvised skill, power, beauty and presence of mind. Being gobsmacked by the whole thing is the essence of being a fan.
Not so if you gauge opinion from social media and the comments’ sections of newspapers. Reading this, my feeling as a supporter is out of step with many. I freely admit when I’m wrong, as I often am, but there’s something here about changes in the way we relate to the game, something that goes way beyond this goal and which I do not think is for the better.
Two examples. First, many said this was a good goal but was it really all that? In several places on the net, for instance the Guardian comments section, it is suggested that this is not ‘a wonder goal’. Leaving aside the use and creation of that phrase, which we’ve all heard over the past few years to the point where it becomes meaningless, many say this goal is not worthy of that accolade.
You can call it whatever you like but it’s clear many were at most only mildly impressed, others positively dismissive. Using that term as shorthand, if this is not a wonder goal, then what is? Partly this is a rhetorical question, partly a genuine search for examples. There have been goals as good and better but I would contend this is head and shoulders above most goals we’ve seen this season, especially if you add the context. You’ve got to say it’s up there – apparently not.
The modern game distorts expectations in many ways. Success must be instant. Supporters especially of the so-called big clubs have a overweaning sense of entitlement. Second is nowhere, success is not something to be acheived or worked at, rather it is their right as supporters to have success at the highest level to celebrate.
This distorts the nature of the game itself. Last week author Adam Powley overheard some Chelsea fans after they beat PSG saying it was a good thing that moneybags PSG didn’t get through…
This distortion has seeped into the way we perceive the game itself, gnawing away over time at the very meaning of being a supporter. If you can’t enjoy Bale’s goal because it wasn’t really that good, what can you enjoy? What are you waiting for? Because I am here to tell you after fifty years of watching the game, there’s nowhere else to go. Wait for something better to come along and you will be sorely disappointed. This is about as good as it gets.
I’ve seen all of Bale’s goals for Spurs. Some were up there as wonder goals, although I wouldn’t use that term myself. But in my time I have never seen, never, anywhere, a player like him. That fast, that strong, that powerful, that touch, those long-range shots, those deft touches in the box. This goal showed off the lot. This is what football is all about and if you’re looking for something else, it doesn’t exist. Treasure every moment. If this goal doesn’t excite, I cannot possibly see how you can get any enjoyment from football.
Bale’s goal was all the more breathtaking for me because as a Spurs fan, I’ve seen him grow up. More than just any ex-player, Bale has gone from a gawky, hesitant man-child too big for his body to an outstanding footballer. Along the way he’s provided some fantastic goals and memories. I have said before that I feel close to these wide players, these wingers and full-backs. From where I sit on the Shelf, they are 10 yards away, toiling, scared, audacious. I know because I can see every bead of sweat, I can look into their eyes.
I wasn’t the only Spurs fan who wished him well, who took pride in this goal and others even though it brought into stark relief how limited we are in comparison and how much we miss him. I openly admitted that Bale’s goal made me feel a little warm and fuzzy inside, warm in that I was pleased for him, the memories were fuzzy, generous recollections of his days with us.
Many Spurs fans were not so generous. Bale (and Modric, having a quiet moment together as the goal celebration finally ended) rejected us so we reject them. Many on the boards and twitter saw no reason to join in. Others were downright angry with him for leaving and the goal left them at best indifferent, at worst downright angry.
Unlike my first example, I do get this one even if I don’t feel the same way. An element of sentimentality infuses my writing, without dominating, because that’s part of how I relate to being a supporter. The past is important to the present. Football is 22 men kicking a ball and at the same time so much more than that. Equally I know only too well that investing in an emotional attachment is nothing more than love unrequited, doomed before it began because in the end, they all leave.
I say all. Ledley didn’t leave, he was taken from us. I don’t do friendlies or testimonials but I went to Billy Nick’s and I will go to his. But these days, they don’t hang around. This change has been mirrored by changes in supporter attitudes. Fans are quicker to reject them now, when they go. If a player indicates that he wants to leave, the anger and opprobrium is particularly harsh and bitter. Players have been agitating for a move for as long as there has been professional football but the reaction of fans these days seems much stronger than I recall in the past. Waddle, Hoddle and Gazza – I remember disappointment and sadness but not the fury provoked by, say, Berbatov’s or Modric’s departures.
Just to be explicit about what I am not saying. I’m not saying my way is better, merely that this development seems to be a part of contemporary fandom. Neither am I welcoming back every past Spurs player with open arms. The ones I don’t like are those who take it easy and don’t give us their best while they wear the shirt. All I would say about Bale is that when he played for us, he played. He gave as much as any man and his football over the years contributed to our best results, our best league positions for decades and unforgettable memories. He didn’t stop playing for us, just got a bit sulky in the close season when Levy was haggling over the fee. He was always going to be sold once Real made the offer and I can’t blame him for joining arguably the top club in Europe. In my balance sheet therefore, he is forever in the black.
So why are reactions more vehement? The answer must lie beyond the actions of individual players, although that is important of course, witness Vertonghen’s apparent disdain at the moment. Fans feel alienated from their clubs to an increasing extent. Players and clubs are distant, exploiting our willingness to come every week to the point where their praise of supporter loyalty borders on the patronising. Clubs invite us to be part of the experience but do little or nothing in return to earn our trust or respect.
It’s natural therefore that we don’t invest emotionally in players because we know they will be off soon. It’s not just Spurs. This is part of the modern game. And the consequence of not being close to players is that you are less close to the club itself. The ties that bind are loosening. There is a real danger that the nature of support is changing irrevocably and the only thing that will stop it is if the clubs begin to recognise that and treat supporters with the respect they deserve. I’m not holding my breath.
In the meantime, enjoy it while it’s there. That is not meant as an ironic throwaway remark. Get as much from the game as you can. See a goal like Bale’s for what it is, a sublime example of the art. Relish Eriksen’s goals or Hugo’s saves – maybe if they do enough of each they’ll stay longer because we will do well but don’t allow the certain knowledge of their departure to taint your enjoyment of the game. Football isn’t just about winning, it’s about wonder, so marvel all you can. Because if that goes, there’s nothing left.