Gareth Bale – learning lessons from the world of rugby?

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“Footballers could learn a lesson from their rugby counterparts.’’ So goes one of the most infuriating and familiar bar-room tropes that does the rounds during a 6 Nations tournament or a Rugby World Cup, usually pertaining to the more respectful relationship between players and the referee in the oval ball code. Whilst there is some truth in that specific aspect of the two sports, football to its shame never seems able to learn that lesson, there are certainly some traits that the eleven-man game would do well to avoid.

But maybe in one very small and almost unconsidered way footballers are starting to learn a lesson from the world of rugby.

In October of last year, Spanish journalist Edu Aguirre revealed that Gareth Bale had withheld permission from Real Madrid to publicly publish his medical report.

The ‘parte médico’ – the medical report that appears on official club websites is one of the curious idiosyncrasies of the Spanish football world. These brief reports provide detail on injuries using the most hyper-specific of medical terminology and are published, usually alongside a picture of the player and often some sort of subtle or not so subtle advertising for a private healthcare provider.

An example of an injury report for Bale in the early 2017/18 season read: “Our player Gareth Bale, who felt some discomfort in his left leg at the end of Thursday’s training session, today underwent various tests carried out by the Real Madrid Sanitas medical team. He has been diagnosed with a strain to the middle third of the adductor longus muscle in his left leg. His recovery will continue to be assessed.”

For those of us who grew up in a UK football culture — aside from a handful of isolated episodes of national hysteria where oversized diagrams of cruciate knee ligaments or metatarsals suddenly appeared in tabloid newspapers — player injury news is by and large fairly vaguely reported by both club and media. A scant description and rough timeline on the player’s return usually more than enough to assuage most people’s curiosity.

On the terraces, displaying the most basic knowledge of the actual injury can elevate fans to levels of that of soothsayer – ‘What’s up with Kane today?’, ‘Hammy, mate’.

However Spanish media coverage, particularly in the printed press, is remarkable for its detail when it comes to injury. No doubt driven by the fact that the primary source, the parte médico, is so precise.

So what would prompt Bale to opt out of this fine Spanish tradition?

First of all, of course, it is his absolute right to not have his personal medical information broadcast to the world.

But just maybe Bale has decided to follow a lead from the world of rugby. There has been a move, particularly in Irish rugby over the past few years where players have become more protective about medical information released in the public domain. The most high profile of those being Jamie Heaslip in 2017 and Conor Murray in 2018 who both refused to release specific information regarding injuries. Both ultimately found this to be a double-edged sword as speculation and rumour became rife as to the nature of their absences.

It was speculated at the time that this would be part of a growing trend amongst sportsmen looking to protect future careers in the game, retirement strategies and even matters such as personal insurance. As an IRFU spokesman explained to the Irish Times, “I think the players are being advised by their own personal management to be more conscious of that. If you put your CV out there, you want your medical history to be nice and clean as an athlete. I think we will see more of that.”

As a proud Welshman, Bale is no stranger to the world of rugby and indeed was a schoolmate of Welsh rugby legend Sam Warburton. Interestingly, his long time representative Jonathan Barnett is the chairman and founder of the Stellar Group – one of the largest and most high profile football agencies in the world but also an entity that has a number of high profile rugby players as clients.

Has Bale taken a leaf out of rugby’s book? It’s impossible to know. However, it’s quite possible that some of the game’s thinking surrounding medical data may have filtered its way across to Madrid. It may well be that in the years to come the parte médico may have to become a little less surgically specific.

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