They should have learned their lesson.
In August 2004, more than four months since his last competitive match, Jonathan Woodgate joined Real Madrid for £13.4 million from Newcastle.
Injured at the time, Woodgate’s various ailments were at times ignored and at others mismanaged, and by the time he left Spain to join Middlesbrough in 2006 he had featured in only nine La Liga matches and was voted “Worst Signing of the 21st Century” by Madrid supporters.
Here’s guessing Gareth Bale’s time in the Spanish capital will be rather more successful than Woodgate’s. After all, the Welshman is the reigning Premier League Player of the Year and last season scored 26 goals in all competitions for Tottenham Hotspur.
But in rushing the 24-year-old into action last month, Madrid displayed a disconcerting inability to learn from mistakes of times past.
When Bale arrived at the Bernabeu he had participated in next to none of Spurs' pre-season regimen and was nursing an ankle injury. Nevertheless, he was thrown into the starting lineup for his new club’s first match following the summer transfer period, and he also made cameo appearances against Galatasaray in the Champions League and Atletico Madrid last weekend.
All the while he should have been undergoing a rigorous training and rehabilitation programme to get him match-fit before making his debut, and on Wednesday Madrid confirmed he had suffered a new injury that would keep him sidelined for the next few weeks.
“After the tests carried out today, the player Gareth Bale has been diagnosed with a muscle contracture in his left thigh,” the club announced on its official website. “It remains to be seen how the condition develops.”
At the very least Bale will miss a Champions League match at home to FC Copenhagen, Wales’ upcoming round of internationals, a Primera Division encounter against Malaga and another Champions League contest against Juventus.
On October 26 Madrid are off to Barcelona for El Clasico, and while even that might be too soon for him it wouldn’t be at all surprising if he made an appearance at Camp Nou—even if Carlo Ancelotti would prefer he didn’t.
In Real Madrid’s world, where players are acquired for €100 million and managers have little or no say about transfers, team selection can be as much about politics as performance. Former Madrid boss Jose Mourinho ran into this problem with ex-sporting director Jorge Valdano—a clash that led to Zinedine Zidane’s current role as team peacemaker.
It’s a foolish approach, and one Madrid are already paying for with Bale’s extended absence. Even Spanish daily Marca, the club’s unofficial mouthpiece, has vented some frustration, grumbling in a Wednesday article that Bale cannot “make the cut twice in a row.”
And he won’t until he is allowed to both make a full, physical recovery and regain appropriate match fitness. It’s the basics of man-management.
Of course, Madrid might have perused Bale’s injury history and realized he has so far experienced no fewer than 10 muscle and joint injuries since moving to Spurs from Southampton in 2007—a history that would suggest a delicate approach with the player is advisable.
But Madrid threw him to the lions instead. They chose to parade their big-money signing in front of the world and will now be without him until the end of the month.
They have only themselves to blame.
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