Wales captain Gareth Bale has hit back at Spanish newspaper Marca for a column which described him as a “parasite”.
Bale has been criticised in Madrid for being perceived to be more committed to playing for Wales than Real Madrid.
Bale, who scored twice against Austria on Thursday to take Wales to a World Cup play-off final, says he wants to use his profile to “change the way we publicly talk and criticise people”.
“The everyday pressure on athletes is immense,” Bale wrote on social media.
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The column in Spanish news publication Marca accused Bale, who joined Real Madrid from Tottenham for a world-record fee of £85m in 2013, of “sucking the club’s money”.
Bale has won 14 trophies with Real, including four Champions League titles, but he has been criticised, particularly in recent seasons, for his injury record.
The 32-year old is out of contract this summer and has refused to be drawn on his future at Wales news conferences.
When he was pictured smiling while training with Wales this week, days after missing Real’s heavy defeat against Barcelona, Marca’s front-page headline was a sarcastic: “It doesn’t hurt anymore.”
Bale has played two hours of football in six months for Real and made just two appearances since the last international window in November.
The former Tottenham forward stopped short of answering his critics after his incredible performance against Austria, but alluded to being hurt by the coverage he has received.
“I don’t need to send a message,” he told Sky Sports. “I don’t need to say anything, it’s a waste of my time.
“It’s disgusting. They should be ashamed of themselves. I am not fussed, end of.
“I can hit a free-kick if I am able to play. It was nice to see it go in.”
Bale’s statement on social media made clear his disappointment at how the Spanish media have written about him.
“The media expect superhuman performances from professional athletes and will be the first to celebrate with them when they deliver, yet instead of commiserating with them when they show an ounce of human error, they are torn to shreds instead, encouraging anger and disappointment in their fans,” he wrote.
“I hope that by the time our children are of an age to ingest news that journalism ethics and standards will have been enforced more stringently.
“So I want to use my platform to encourage change in the way we publicly talk about, and criticise people, simply for the most part, not meeting the often unrealistic expectations that are projected onto them.”
In an interview with French paper Le Figaro earlier in the week, Manchester United and France midfielder Paul Pogba said footballers were “not superheroes, only human beings”, adding: “Football is the most individual team sport, you’re judged every three days, you have to be good all the time although we have problems just like everyone has.”
Wales boss Robert Page says Bale is right to speak out.
“I am immensely proud of my captain, he leads by example on and off the pitch,” Page said.
“He’s a great example to younger players and I back his statement 100%. We are here as a group of staff to support him in any way he needs.
“He has the mental toughness, he can cope with situations like this, but he shouldn’t have to. Credit to him.”
Wales’ record scorer Helen Ward agreed with Page that Bale is right to respond to criticism he perceives to have overstepped the mark.
“He’s absolutely right to call it out, sadly we’ve seen too many times that public figures have had this sort of garbage to deal with and it has tipped them over the edge,” she said.
“He’s right to call it out and try and use his platform in a positive way to make things better for himself and others in the future.”
‘We only wrote the reality’
Marca journalist Juan Castro, who did not write the column Bale referred to, says the newspaper is merely reflecting the reality of Bale’s situation in Madrid.
“We were not surprised by Gareth’s reaction,” he told BBC Radio 5 Live.
“Our feeling here in Madrid is it is a pity the relationship between Gareth and the Spanish press has finished like this.
“We made really big positive headlines in the first years of Gareth here in Madrid, but sadly he stopped playing here in Madrid, he does not want to play here, he is always injured and has played only four games in La Liga this season, scoring only one goal.
“We only wrote the reality. He was a phenomenon here in the past, but in Madrid, he is not any more.
“We don’t recognise ourselves in his words.
“Gareth not being selected is a question for Carlo Ancelotti, he does not count on him.
“Gareth was a phenomenon for four years, but not now. We suspect that is because he doesn’t want to, not because he is not able to.
“Because with Wales, he showed he is still a phenomenon of football.”