Exclusive – As a former Real Madrid player, Michael Owen still has a soft spot for Los Blancos.
He may have only spent one year at the Santiago Bernabéu, but it was long enough for Owen to take in the culture and appreciate what life is like for an outsider at one of the world’s biggest clubs.
Owen found himself under the microscope for a large part of the season, with both fans and the media obsessed with his each and every move. When things were going well, that wasn’t a problem, but when the goals dried up, it was tough to manage.
Watching Real this year, Owen has seen Welsh winger Gareth Bale endure something similar. A tricky relationship with manager Zinedine Zidane left Bale glued to the bench for the end of the season, but he still managed to steal the headlines through his off-pitch antics – pretending to sleep and goofing around with a ‘telescope’ were just two incidents which attracted the fury of the Madrid press.
“Gareth Bale, when you look at his record, is quite sensational,” Owen tells 90min. “Not just what he’s won, but the moments he’ll have when he looks back on his career – Champions League-winning goal, the trophies he’s won – it’s staggering what moments he’s had, yet he’s not a darling of the fans.
“Whether Cristiano Ronaldo had something to do with that – he was just so clearly the best player and maybe people expected Bale to come in and almost replicate that. I’m not sure whether, off the pitch – I know he likes playing golf – things can get misconstrued. In my career, I did one or two things that I thought were so innocent, yet they got turned into big things. I wish I hadn’t done them, just for the perception.
“It’s a shame really. It’s great to see British players going abroad and doing well, but he can hold his head up high when he comes back. What an unbelievable set of medals he’s got, and more importantly, memories he’s got of great games.”
There has long been an idea that English players cannot cope with life in another country. It’s a judgement which has been regularly cast on Bale, whose love of playing golf and willingness to spend time alone have seen fans turn against him.
“There were two papers basically dedicated to Real Madrid,” Owen recalls. “We think we’re in a goldfish bowl over here, there was paparazzi following you everywhere, you’re really under the microscope!
“Fans are different. Fans go there, to the stadiums, and it’s almost more of a theatre atmosphere, very quiet. If they don’t like what they’re seeing, the white hankies come out and they get excited when the ball goes around the box, but it general play it’s very quiet. There are subtle differences.”
Bale finds himself at somewhat of a crossroads in his career, but he’s not alone in that respect. Plenty of players will need to decide on their futures this summer, and one player thought to be in that bracket is Tottenham Hotspur’s Harry Kane.
Widely regarded as one of the best pure strikers around, Kane does not boast the kind of CV that many 27-year-olds of his calibre do. He is yet to win a trophy and was powerless to prevent Spurs from slipping to sixth in the Premier League table, prompting rumours it might be time for him to move elsewhere.
“Utopia for Harry Kane is probably to stay and win the league with Tottenham, but at some point in your career you’ve got to look at it and think ‘what matters most to me now?’,” Owen says, having been through a similar situation during his days with Liverpool.
“He can be a Tottenham legend forever, he can stay there and be an absolute legend forever, and that’s great and something you’ve got to be mindful of, because he could go and chase medals and have a better chance of winning them at a few other clubs. But will he be held in the same esteem?
“I had that same decision in my career. Steven Gerrard had that decision, virtually everyone you want to mention has those decisions. It doesn’t necessarily come down to loyalty, some people are just very ambitious. He’ll always love Tottenham, I’m sure.
“Put it this way, if they come ninth or tenth in the league and they’re not going to win the cup, and it happens again next season, then he’s got a big decision to make.
“It’s nothing to do with money. It’s whether he wants to have a few medals in his trophy cabinet at the end of his career, or whether he wants to be a Matt Le Tissier that’s seen as ‘fair play, he just stuck to his own club through thick and thin, had a bit of success but didn’t win many trophies, but he’s an absolute legend’.”
Michael Owen is part of KIA’s #TheDreamPass campaign – an online football class hosted by legendary former professionals encouraging young players in their respective cities to donate their boots and take part in a skills challenge.
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