We’ve all got one. The one we weren’t allowed to look at; the one we had to admire in secret, from a distance. One more appropriate to deny than to acknowledge, to dismiss than to appreciate.
Guilty pleasures in football usually cross supporting lines. It’s very seldom that one can support one of the top sides and not suddenly find themselves in awe, in nearly shameful veneration of a particular talent that not only plays for a rival team, but in fact produces footballing displays worthy of respect and justified envy.
This series of articles is about those players. Some of them played for your club’s worst of enemies, some of them even contributed to nights of disappointment for you and your supporter brethren. Whatever the narrative, they all share the characteristic of being so good at what they do in football, that you found yourself marvelling at them while despising their allegiance, jealous that their talent didn’t manifest in the colours of your beloved club.
As an American that grew up in a family with about as much football knowledge as a potato, when I started following Arsenal I had to learn things from other fans. One thing I learned pretty quickly was that, as an Arsenal fan, you are supposed to treat Tottenham the same way you treat someone that hates puppies; with hate and contempt.
As everyone knows, when you’re an Arsenal fan, Tottenham are the enemy. You hate them, they hate you; that’s just life. The rivalry intensified between 2009 and 2013 because Spurs were… well… good. There is a lot of hate for Tottenham, but when it came to Gareth Bale it was a slightly different story.
Bale had always been a talented footballer. He was great to watch and someone I was jealous of Spurs having. He never really did anything particularly hateable on a personal level either, so he was always just lumped in as a someone that I had to hate by association. Then 2012/2013 happened and the admiration for Bale rose to a new level. It was just impossible for me to hate the guy and hard not to enjoy watching him.
In 2012/2013, Gareth Bale was basically a video game. His last two goals for Spurs encapsulated everything that was so great about him (If you don’t remember them go to 11:25 on the video above). On both, Bale collected the ball on the right wing, cut inside, and just thumped it into the far corner. All the players on the pitch, all the fans in the stands, and everyone watching on TV all over the world knew what he wanted to do. Yet no one in the world was stopping him. He scored goals of that quality every week, and they weren’t all shots from distance. Left foot, right foot, 30 yard strike, free kick, or run from the half way line, Bale did it all.
Bale routinely won games single handedly, whether it was for Spurs or Wales. He was a player that could pick the ball up at the halfway line and truly take the game by the scruff of the neck. His performance for Wales against Scotland was a perfect example. With the his country down 1-0 in the 80th minute, he won a penalty and converted it himself making it 1-1. Then in the 89th minute he picked the ball up about 50 yards from goal, drove past one player, shot across goal from 25 yards and placed it in the far top corner to win the game. It was unstoppable heart stopping stuff. It was one of those moments where he just took your breath away.
Not only was he good, but he was CLUTCH. In his last 15 games with Tottenham, he scored a goal in the 86th minute or later to win the game four times, all of them from outside the area. THE MAN WAS A VIDEO GAME! At that point in the season, Arsenal and Spurs were in the thick of arguably the tightest of their recent top four races. Those goals routinely ruined my week, but they were just so good it was genuinely hard not to adore Bale for them. He was one of those players where no matter how much emotional pain he put me through, he was so good that he transcended my hate for Tottenham.
When he left for Real Madrid, Gareth Bale was truly world class and probably a top five player in world football. There have been other rival players that have been at that level, but Bale was different. He made the incredible routine. He scored worldies on a weekly basis. He would do something most footballers couldn’t dream of doing and then do it again in the same game (the home game against Lyon comes to mind, go to 7:03 in the video). He repeated the unrepeatable. For as much emotional pain as his goals caused me, I just couldn’t help but love Gareth Bale.