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MARTIN SAMUEL: Gareth Bale has learned the hard way that you can’t just turn talent on and off

Wales. Golf. Madrid. In that order. As jokes go it’s aged about as well as the Englishman, Irishman and Scotsman who walked into a bar.

Gareth Bale, struggling to make an impact as Tottenham lose to Brighton, is not having the last laugh. Talent of the type he possesses cannot be turned on and off. Ask Eden Hazard, ask Alexis Sanchez. Talent must be nurtured, it must be fed, it must be well looked after. 

The days Bale spent playing golf and not football, or sitting on the bench winding up the local media in Spain, have dulled him, blunted his instincts. Everyone is desperate for Bale to perform now, everyone longs for a glimpse of the player who left these shores in 2013. Where is he?

Gareth Bale looks like a player who is struggling to reacquaint with his former self

Gareth Bale looks like a player who is struggling to reacquaint with his former self

Eden Hazard arrived at Real Madrid in 2019 five kilos overweight

Alexis Sanchez has been left without excuses since he left Arsenal

The Welshman can’t just turn talent on and off, just ask Eden Hazard and Alexis Sanchez

‘I’ve played with Bale and he always had this inner confidence and self-belief, this quiet arrogance,’ said his former Tottenham team-mate Jamie O’Hara. ‘He seems a shadow of the player I knew. This loan has been a disaster.’

Riding a bike, you never forget. What is required to remain at the peak in elite football, maybe you do. Hazard seemed to turn it on and off during his time at Chelsea. One imagines he wishes he could find the on switch now, as his Real Madrid career tanks. He scored one goal in 22 appearances last season. It is three goals in 13 games this season.

‘He plays promisingly for 15 minutes and we’re pleased,’ said Madrid’s former sporting director Predrag Mijatovic. ‘That’s because we’ve spent a year and a half waiting on him.’

Hazard was better at Chelsea, at his best the Premier League’s finest player, but was still prone to periods of absence. In 2014-15 he scored 14 goals in 38 matches as Chelsea won the League; in 2016-17 he scored 16 goals in 36 matches, and Chelsea triumphed again. Between that, in 2015-16, four goals in 31 matches, Jose Mourinho sacked, Chelsea mid-table. At one stage he went 30 matches without scoring.

Hazard arrived at Madrid five kilos overweight and declared: ‘If I’m on holiday, then I’m on holiday.’ But pre-season should be spent conditioning, not dieting. He has had a hard run of injuries since and we can never know the extent to which that may have been a factor.

Cristiano Ronaldo has never disrespected his talent by expecting it to compensate for a lack of fitness.

The two work in tandem — and when Ronaldo sensed his speed was going, he adapted his game and altered his physical presence to that of a striker.

Sanchez spent his final years at Arsenal waving his arms around in frustration and blaming his team-mates for the club’s decline. This proved less than ideal preparation for a move to Manchester United, where the weak link was quickly identified by a succession of managers.

The Wales. Golf. Madrid joke has not aged well for Bale who is struggling to make an impact

The Wales. Golf. Madrid joke has not aged well for Bale who is struggling to make an impact

Sanchez had been given an easy ride in north London, where everything was the fault of the manager, the recruitment process or inferior team-mates. Now he was without excuses.

Now at Inter Milan, he’s started seven games all season, and scored twice — most recently in November.

Bale, Sanchez and Hazard were all great footballers and of an age where they might be again. Sanchez is 32, Hazard 30, Bale 31. Yet it doesn’t get easier at that age. And the longer a player has gone without pushing boundaries, the harder it becomes. The word inside Tottenham is that Bale’s fitness levels were not considered adequate for the Premier League when he first arrived.

Had Harry Kane’s ankles withheld, he probably would not have started at Brighton, either. And O’Hara was right. In the 61 minutes Bale played before being replaced by Lucas Moura, he was a shadow of the talent we had hoped to see.

Wales, golf, Madrid, in that order. The problem is only the third of those would have readied a player for the challenges Tottenham face.

Bale has failed to impress since his return to Spurs on loan from Real Madrid in the summer

Bale has failed to impress since his return to Spurs on loan from Real Madrid in the summer

When Bale stood behind that banner, Wales had just qualified for the 2020 European Championship. And to do that, they had to finish above Slovakia, Hungary and Azerbaijan, none of whose national teams would finish in the top four of the Premier League.

Indeed, only Marek Rodak, the Slovakia goalkeeper who has started one game for Fulham this season, is a Premier League presence in those squads. So Wales won’t cut it, and golf won’t do it, leaving Madrid — the club that Bale mocked — as the only adequate gateway to elite Premier League football. Had Bale been a Madrid regular, he might have arrived as we remembered him, all energy and threat.

Instead, at Brighton, he looked like a player struggling to get reacquainted with his past, or just past caring, according to Graeme Souness.

‘I am looking at him, a world-class player, he comes back to the club he professes to love and it’s as if he has been happy to sit on the bench,’ Souness said. ‘At 31, these should be his peak years. I played my best football at 31.’

Could Bale do that? Does he even want to? If this move doesn’t work out, what becomes of him in the summer? A return to Madrid, and then what? China? More golf? They didn’t think he cared in Spain, yet Tottenham was meant to be different — a fresh start, the rekindling of a great love. Maybe football has simply spent too long relegated down his list of priorities. Let’s hope his golf game was worth it.

Joelinton’s a flop with a crop

Joelinton is not alone. There are plenty of players whose hair looks as if it is being styled during lockdown.

Some cuts are extraordinarily complex and sharp and require a degree of skill to maintain that would be beyond any layman. Try to do anything to the back of your head, without it ending up looking like a hand grenade.

And not everyone can have a partner, or a member of their social bubble, who does hair. So something is up. What made Joelinton stand out, however, was not his new lid, but that he posted images of it on Instagram.

Even the man responsible, Tom Baxter, called him an idiot. He should not be fined by Newcastle for getting his hair cut. He should be fined for utter stupidity. Indeed, looking at his scoring record, it would explain a lot.

Joelinton was called an idiot for posting a picture after getting his haircut during lockdown

Joelinton was called an idiot for posting a picture after getting his haircut during lockdown

UEFA should respect ticket holders, not restart sales

UEFA are considering refunding all tickets for this summer’s European Championship, and starting sales again once Covid-restricted stadium capacities are known. This is considered preferable to a ballot of existing ticket-holders.

‘Either way, people are going to be angry if they miss out,’ a UEFA official told The Times.

But that isn’t true. Supporters are aware of the issues. As long as the process is transparent, the majority will understand the luck of the draw. Yet those who bought first, who got up early, who stayed on telephone lines to secure their tickets, will not be happy to be plonked back in the pack, particularly as all the fixtures are now known.

One of my boys, and his friends, secured tickets for England’s second group game at Wembley. At the time it was England versus Winner of Play-off Path C. It could have been Norway, it could have been Serbia, it could have been Israel. It’s Scotland.

From the ticket that no one wanted, it became the hottest in town. If his little group miss out in the ballot for entry to a restricted Wembley, that’s unfortunate. If they are forced to compete with many thousands more to buy something they already had, that’s unfair.

Fans will be needed more than ever if football is to recover from the pandemic.

They need to be the first thought, not the last.

UEFA are considering refunding those who have already bought tickets for Euro 2020

UEFA are considering refunding those who have already bought tickets for Euro 2020

Golf isn’t about to forgive and forget, Patrick 

Auric Goldfinger was an expert shot who would assassinate his enemies with a single bullet through the right eye. He intended to use the nerve gas, Sarin, to kill everybody at Fort Knox and pull off a $15billion bullion robbery. When Ian Fleming truly wanted to impart what a despicable creature he was, however, he made him a cheat at golf.

No sport is as unforgiving towards those who abuse the rules. Some of the greatest players, household names, remain the subject of whispers and sneers in private over an episode that has been judged harshly.

So Patrick Reed’s win at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines South this weekend came with a heavy cost.

On Saturday, Reed, the leader, pulled his approach to the 10th into heavy grass around the green. He asked his playing partners and a nearby volunteer if the ball had bounced before coming to rest. All said no, so Reed declared his ball embedded, and pulled it out for a free drop.

Technically, he did no wrong. A rules official hadn’t arrived but Reed had, according to the laws, determined to the best of his ability that his ball was plugged. He was entitled to relief.

In wet conditions, to play the ball as it lay could have added one shot or more to his scorecard.

Yet replays indicated the ball had bounced and therefore would not be embedded and not due relief. By picking it up before the official arrived, Reed had ensured there would be no independent inspection. ‘When we’re out there, we can’t see everything,’ he told CBS. It’s fair to say his contemporaries were unsympathetic.

Patrick Reed has been under scrutiny after celebrating the most commanding win of his career

Patrick Reed has been under scrutiny after celebrating the most commanding win of his career

‘If my ball’s embedded, I usually call someone and wait until everyone’s on the same page, wait to look at the video,’ said Xander Schauffele, one of the second-placed finishers. Asked specifically about Reed, he went further. ‘Obviously the talk amongst the boys isn’t great,’ Schauffele added.

Yet here’s the strange thing. Rory McIlroy did exactly the same thing on the 18th that day. Didn’t see the ball land, asked around and took relief without consulting a rules official. And no complaints, anywhere.

So McIlroy is viewed differently to Reed, who has been dogged by cheating allegations dating back to his college golf days with University of Georgia and then Augusta State. More recently, he was given a two-shot penalty for illegally improving his lie in a bunker at the 2019 Hero World Challenge tournament.

And while a cricketer who refuses to walk before the umpire’s raised finger is celebrated by his team-mates, and Luis Suarez was lionised in Uruguay for punching the ball off the line in a World Cup quarter-final, golf views cheating, even gamesmanship, very differently.

Reed may be one trophy and £1million better off, but he’s unlikely to find much company at the bar. Maybe he doesn’t care. Neither would Goldfinger. That was pretty much Fleming’s point.

Blocking online abusers is no answer to the problem

If Marcus Rashford, or any person of colour, was being racially abused in the street, it would not be considered a solution to obscure the noise with headphones, or to simply cross the road. 

So why are social media companies telling the Professional Footballers’ Association that the way for players like Rashford to fight racism online is to block the abusers? That is no answer at all. That is an abdication of responsibility. This is why the Government must enforce change by law if necessary.

Why should football players have to fight racism on social media by just blocking the abusers?

Why should football players have to fight racism on social media by just blocking the abusers?

Why Manchester City look like Lionel Messi’s only option

Details of Lionel Messi’s contract with Barcelona have been leaked in Spain. His current deal is worth in the region of £491million, across four years. Barcelona have threatened to take legal action against the newspaper El Mundo, and whoever provided the information. That’s not the same as saying it isn’t true.

Increasingly, it all adds up to a move to Manchester City this summer. The specific structure of the City Football Group (CFG), with its worldwide network of clubs, is alone in competing financially. 

Messi’s announcement that he would like to one day play in Major League Soccer must have delighted those with New York City in their portfolio. 

Messi could start in Manchester, then fulfil his ambition to play in America, or move east to China or Japan. He could also be a group ambassador, and this way the financial hit would be spread.

Barcelona are very proud of their Manhattan office on Park Avenue, but it’s not the same as having a club, a genuine footprint and focal point in the American market.

City’s chief executive officer Ferran Soriano was ahead of his time in seeing that clubs needed to do more than tour continents and sell merchandise.

Now CFG are in a position to offer Messi a unique career plan and a way of spreading cost.

Maybe not £491m, but they’ll be competitive.

Details surrounding Lionel Messi's contract could lead to a summer move to Manchester City

Details surrounding Lionel Messi’s contract could lead to a summer move to Manchester City

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