As Gareth Bale tumbled to the ground ostensibly under a challenge from Shaun Maloney during Wales' dramatic 2-1 World Cup Qualifying win over Scotland on Friday night, the Internet exploded. Charges of diving, accompanied heavily with fairly insalubrious descriptions of Bale himself, flooded every social media outlet and every online message board covering Premier League and international football as the Bale simulation saga took on a new emotionally-charged dimension.
For my part, I still can't decide on review whether the incident in question constituted a dive or not. Initially I was convinced Bale had actually contrived to kick himself to simulate contact, and was sickened to my stomach. Then, after rewatching the event again and again from different angles, I couldn't help but notice Maloney's leg appears to snap back slightly after the apparent moment of collision with Bale's- something the defender's own post-match testimony confirms. All this is of no consequence, however. What really matters is that the incident served to confirm that when it comes to instances of alleged diving, Bale has joined that elite group of Guilty Until Proven Innocent on simulation matters, which already rightly or wrongly counts the likes of Luis Suarez and Ashley Young amongst it's members.
This is a deeply perturbing problem. What saddens me is that in having built such a reputation for diving through more than a handful of questionable reactions to tackles, Bale's unquestionable ability and potential are becoming overshadowed by a darker public image. What scares me even more is the fact that this is not seemingly bothering the Welsh winger at all, who is only going to greater and greater lengths to theatrically embellish or totally avoid contact with each match he plays in. Bale and his observers are moving towards opposite poles. As his detractors grow louder and louder in branding him a diver, Bale continues to flop harder and harder. Call it a Ronaldo complex, that feeling of invincibility and entitlement to favourable referee decisions when a player reaches a certain level of fame and notoriety. Call it the growing prevalence of Bale's increasingly dubious ‘self-defense' tactic. I call it a serious issue.
If there's one man who can put a stop to this problem immediately, it can only be the club's manager, André Villas-Boas. When a young player begins in some respect to go off the rails, it takes the firm hand of the man responsible for directing him to put him on the straight and narrow again. The problem is, AVB has a few unresolved issues of his own that he's still trying as he seeks to bed in with Spurs (with increasing success, to be fair) to work out; namely, those of man management. At Chelsea, Villas-Boas was derided for his inability to speak to people; to issue commands, and to let players know what he expected of them. He lost the dressing room, and subsequently he lost his job.
People say that AVB was forced out of Chelsea primarily because of strong characters- however, though the personalities may vary, the simple truth is that any football manager will encounter strong characters anywhere they go and the onus on them is to adapt, and then lay down the law once they have the undivided attention and respect of their players. It is not unfair to say that bale is a strong character. Through his simulation, which is becoming less and less veiled, he is beginning to reveal the green shoots of that same unlikeable, primadonna attitude that has been bundled up into the unpopularity of so many famous divers throughout the history of the Premier League. If AVB wants to show that he's mastered the art of bonding with and straightening out ‘characters', he can start by nipping the nascent problems Bale faces in the bud right now.
The problem of Bale's diving, and AVB's response to said matter, represents a more pivotal issue for both men that it might initially appear on the surface. Ahead of both lies two paths which they will walk down together as the developments on the matter unfold; one with favourable consequences, and the other with more worrying ones. If the Portuguese manager can sit Bale down for a firm word about his simulation tendencies, bring him back down to earth and emphasizing his need to demonstrate his skills to the watching world rather than his more disappointing traits, he will have set Tottenham's best player back on the right path at a pivotal stage and prevented his mentality from consuming his potential. He also will have proven that he possesses the human touch and an ability to lay down the law with the more mercurial elements in his dressing room, and he will have laid down the foundations for general respect amongst the squad going forwards; a key element for a successful season.
If he fails, however, the sad fact is that AVB will have fallen short in trying to pass the first test of his man management skills at Tottenham. He will have demonstrated again that he cannot overcome the stronger personalities in his squad, with all of the nasty implications that holds for the future. He will also have given carte blanche to Bale to indulge his distasteful habit of hitting the turf instead of using his skill to beat his man- setting his mental and technical development back by several years and turning him into the kind of media pariah that such a hard-working and intelligent young player doesn't deserve to be labelled as. Whether AVB perceives the issue as seriously as we seem to around these parts or not in the present, that is a future I'm sure even the most amiable manager would never forgo the disciplinarian approach for -- at least, we can certainly hope not.
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