A dragon in the City of Angels – What can Gareth Bale and LAFC expect from each other?
‘I don’t ever wanna feel, like I did that day,
Take me to the place I love, take me all the way.’
– Red Hot Chili Peppers, ‘Under the bridge’.
We all remember where we were when we found out that Gareth Bale was headed to Los Angeles – choosing the City of Angels over the city where he was born. I remember it vividly, because it was only this weekend and I’d just come out of Merthyr’s Vue cinema, having watched the Buzz Lightyear film with my children. As I opened the notification on my phone, the news struck me like the animated astronaut’s infinity blaster.
Against my better judgement I’d been hooked by the Bale to Cardiff City rumours. As I read the news on my phone, a depressing reality struck me, and I realised that the return of Cardiff’s prodigal son seemed as fantastical as the film I’d just seen. I’d bought the rumours hook, line and sinker. I’d budgeted the hundreds of pounds required for a season ticket at Cardiff City Stadium for me and my eldest and had a hypothetical argument with my wife, about shaving the number 11 into the back of his head.
But it would never happen. That was it. Bale had signed for LA Galaxy, of course he had. Bale was following in the footsteps of David Beckham, Steven Gerrard and Zlatan Ibrahimović. It was only when I got home, that I realised it was LAFC, not Galaxy who had secured his signature. To borrow a line from an old milk advert on Accrington Stanley, ‘ Los Angeles FC, who are they?!’
It’s fair to say MLS and American ‘soccer’ isn’t thought of highly in Europe. Neither are the fans. Much like how every town in Britain has an America obsessed, pick-up truck driving, Dallas Cowboys fan – Americans who like ‘soccer’ seem a little lame to our European sensibilities. Like ‘Tex’ the chevvy driver from Tremorfa, it just doesn’t look or sound right.
Lara Hallett originally from Trealaw, but now residing in Los Angeles as the Deputy Consul General addresses this, telling me that “‘Americans” is a wildly broad-brush term. An American can change from state to state or city to city. There’s a massive Hispanic community in LA, who have deep connections to football. But they have only had a local team that truly represents them, in the past few years.”
LAFC have filled a gap in the market for the millions of Latinos who call Los Angeles home. The Hispanic community who traditionally consumed football as a broadcast only sport, have swapped the likes of Boca Juniors, River Plate and Flamengo on the TV for a seat at LAFC’s Banc of California stadium. Hallett lauds the club’s success in building a club around its fans, stating “They have some clever strategists at the club, who want to build something sustainable. They’ve really mobilised their fans to build a unique culture.”
Some of the quirks of the LAFC match-day experience are; a staged area in front of their rowdiest fans – soundtracked by a live Mariachi band, and the beginning of each game marked by the arrival of Will Ferrell with a falcon. The experience at LAFC serves to remind us uber-serious football fans that the game can still be fun. “It makes you feel part of something bigger. An inclusive, co-ordinated fan effort.”
Bale is likely to enjoy his time in the sun, away from the pressure cooker of Madrid and the goldfish bowl of Cardiff. After all, a mariachi band in the sun of Los Angeles plays a different tune to The Barry Horns on a drab, Tuesday night in the Championship.
There are parallels to be drawn between what LAFC are attempting to create, and what’s going on at Wrexham, following their Hollywood takeover. Cultural appreciation, not appropriation is high on the agenda of both clubs, who place fans at the centre of everything. One luxury that LAFC enjoy however, is that they can allow the fans to build the club alongside them, rather than try and navigate hundreds of years of history and tradition.
Bale arrives in the city at a critical juncture for sporting life in Los Angeles. The next decade sees Los Angeles host a number of ‘mega-events’ including the 2028 Olympics and games at both the 2026 Football World Cup and the 2027 Rugby World Cup. As the city is the epicentre of global sport during the next decade, sport is a huge priority to the consulate.
No doubt the relationship between club and player will be symbiotic, as Cymru’s greatest ever player has the chance to grow the game in America while growing the brand of his beloved home nation. Its no secret that England casts a shadow over Cymru in the global football gaze, so Bale’s presence in LAFC is huge for our reputation across the Atlantic, made more significant by the fact we meet in the group stages of the upcoming World Cup.
So, what can Bale expect from LAFC? Hallett tells me “I think he’s going to be blown away by how he’ll be treated by the fans. And how much they respect him. I think the club will look after him and invest in him, considering the amount they’ve invested in the fans. I think he can expect a positive experience from a management and executive perspective, but also the love of the fans. He can help them develop on the field with his experience and professionalism.”
Hallett continues, “That’s the difference between LAFC and some other MLS clubs. Where others built clubs around a high profile player, LAFC built a club around the fans.”
LAFC’s focus on a ground-up approach to their identity has given their fans ownership of the brand. Other MLS Clubs top-down approach of signing Europe’s faded superstars is a more commercial approach and as a result, pitches its supporters as consumers, first and foremost. This contrast adds much needed colour to the ‘El Tráfico’ derby, christened after LA’s notoriously brutal traffic.
On the up
The length of Bale’s contract has sent tongues wagging in Wales, an initial year and an option for 18 months suggests that Bale isn’t easing his way out of the game. Perhaps the Red Wall will yet see their captain at a third European Championships in Germany, in 2024.
The MLS has moved on from its status as a glamorous retirement home for European legends. Nowadays, each team has a designated player whose wages can exceed the salary cap, but the rest of the squad is a meritocracy, where stripes must be earned, regardless of achievements on other continents.
LAFC’s designated player is Mexico’s Carlos Vela, recognisable to fans on these isles for his 29 appearances for Arsenal. Vela joined LAFC in 2018, following 6 seasons in San Sebastián with Real Sociedad. Vela’s time at LAFC has been punctuated by success after success. Named MLS MVP in 2019, captaining the MLS All-Stars team and becoming the leading goal scorer in the El Trafico derby with 10 goals. If Gareth Bale is to win the hearts of the LAFC faithful, Vela has handed him the blueprint.
Bale is joining a team on the up, as well as a city on the up, as the growing franchise sit atop the Western Conference. The Welshman could yet add another medal to his glittering career, before the regular season draws to a close in October, giving him time to focus on Cymru’s World Cup campaign.
All that’s left is to wish Gareth well in Los Angeles. Particularly in the El Trafico derby.
And also to remind him that you can drive through the whole of Cardiff, from Llandaf to Penarth in twenty minutes. The door’s always open Gareth.
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