From his own bubble, Gareth Bale switches off the world. He tells Guy Kelly about retirement, his new investment and his love of golf.
It's a phrase he uses himself, but to describe Gareth Bale as "living in his own bubble" probably overstates the structural integrity of bubbles. Instead, it'd be more accurate to imagine the footballer existing in a kind of blacked-out, hermetically-sealed chamber: roomy enough to contain his playing and training for Real Madrid, as well as family life with his wife, Emma, and their children, plus plenty of space for his other great passion, golf – but completely, formidably impervious to anything else.
That means no access to social media (a company does it for him, he approves the posts), almost no news and current affairs (and we'll come to that), apparently zero knowledge of the rumours and speculation surrounding his career (and there are a lot), and rarely ever going out (he never has). It's actually quite impressive.
I've been allowed in for half an hour. Bale and I meet at his agents' Madrid offices, a floor of a converted townhouse shared with the Embassy of Monaco. The walls are plastered with photographs of the Welshman himself and said agents – a dapper father and son duo who possess a mafioso's gently menacing charm – prowl close to their star client. It was they who negotiated Bale's then-record €100 million ($173 million) move to the Spanish capital in 2013; it is they who will ensure questions don't touch on matters not up for discussion.
Like what, I ask. "Like Real Madrid." Don't ask about his job, got it.
Hair hostage in a top knot, beard trying its best, legs so freshly waxed as to look clingfilmed, Bale, 30, arrives seeming relaxed and happy. He's here to talk about his next business venture outside football, a London-based fitness start-up called Rowbots. It's a lively 45-minute workout built around the rowing machine but combined with "explosive floor work and mental conditioning". Bale's a co-founder and investor. So how does it all work?
"I haven't actually been to the gym and sat in the class yet, but I've done the workouts," he says. "It's basically your normal workout, but full-body. Cycling just uses your legs, but with rowing you work on not just your legs but your arms. I'm not sure if you've been rowing, but it works more than just one muscle group."
His sales pitch needs work, but the mental health aspect of Rowbots sounds interesting. It's a fitness class that places mental wellbeing (coaches help "condition" the mind) on a par with the physical.
"The stigma before was that if you said you weren't mentally strong, you got shot down and not really taken seriously, but now it's a real issue, a real illness, and nothing to be ashamed of. Any professional athlete will say the mental is just as important as the physical."
When Bale was a teenager, training in Southampton's academy but still attending school in Cardiff, he never considered the psychological side of the game.
"Not at all. And even starting to play professionally is a very big jump, so mentally it's difficult," he says. "Now, we've got [psychologists] we can speak to. I've had chats with them about feelings I've had."
I've read that Bale earns £92,993.02 ($187,711) per day, so assume people ask him to invest in things quite a lot. I know I would. "Yeah, and I very rarely choose something to invest in if I don't believe in it."
A lifelong non-drinker, his other major venture is a sports bar, Elevens [his shirt number for club and country], opposite Cardiff Castle.
"Obviously, growing up in Cardiff, there weren't a lot of places to watch sport," he says, puzzlingly. I was at university there a decade ago and couldn't move for pubs with screens. "There's a few other things in the pipeline, but I'm at a time in my career when I need to think about things other than football, because you're a long time retired."
How does he picture retirement?
"On a golf course," he volleys back. His agents – the younger of whom has, I'm sure, recently had to prod his father awake – laugh raucously. It's a bit of an in-joke: he is persistently criticised by the Spanish media for his obsession with golf, and a teammate revealed earlier this year that Bale has been nicknamed "the golfer" – a comment that prompted yet more accusations that he's failed to assimilate into the club's culture.
"I haven't thought about retirement too much, but I'm 30 and you have to turn your attention to it. I'm trying to set things up so I have things to do, rather than just sitting on my sofa."
He says he learned young that reading his own press, even match reports, is a very bad idea. And there's a lot of it: alongside reams of praise for being one of the best, and most successful, British footballers of all time, there's all the speculation he was desperate to move to China over the summer, recent viral videos seemingly showing him refusing to hold the Real Madrid pennant for a team photo, columns insisting he can't speak Spanish (for the record, he has a conversation with a Spaniard in my company and, bar an unshakable Glamorgan accent, seems fluent enough), and obsessive fans on social media. One Instagram account is entirely devoted to his wife and eldest daughter, eight-year-old Alba.
"It's insane. We have to look after ourselves because I don't want my daughter stumbling across something from someone she's never met. The same with my wife and me."
I wonder how he balances that privacy with knowing what's going on in the world, but it seems he never really gave that battle a go.
"I don't have anything on my phone, so unless my friends send me something or my agents tell me something I need to know, I don't pay attention. I don't see the need to."
So if I said, "Gareth, what's your view on Brexit?"… The younger agent interrupts. "He could tell you that." Bale's face says otherwise.
"I look in terms of stuff financially, because [Brexit] affects me in a certain way for investments or money, because things change, but I don't read most of the nonsense [...] I genuinely don't know 99 per cent of Brexit. I don't even know who the prime minister is anymore. I haven't got a clue."
A silence descends. It's... Boris Johnson, I mutter.
"Well, there we go. I didn't know that. I thought he was the mayor?"
The older agent startles. "He was, three years ago!"
Bale shrugs. "I can't have a say in it so I'm not interested. I follow the golf, that's about it. I can tell you who's number one in the world?"
It's one way to live, and it seems blissful. Bale married his school sweetheart, Emma Rhys-Jones, earlier in the summer. Along with Alba, who's fully bilingual, they have three-year-old Nava and one year-old Axel, as well as a house in South Wales where Bale reportedly had three of the world's most famous short holes recreated in the garden.
But home is Madrid, and despite reports, he "feels very happy living here, the lifestyle, culture, food, weather… my family's very settled".
He doesn't know when he'll finish playing, but admits to not enjoying football as much as he did when he was younger. "When you're 18, it's something you dreamed of, but when you've been doing it for a long time it wears off. I still enjoy it but the higher the level, the enjoyment is less," he says. "I suppose [when you're young], you don't understand the negativity that can come with it."
Desperate for a scratch golf handicap (it's currently three), living in Spain and saying things like "the weather is the main part of it, we have a great life" – in many ways Bale is already the quintessential British retiree. Does he really have no interest in doing a Beckham and building his brand further post-football?
"No, thank you. I'd rather no one recognised me." How will he manage that? "Stay on a golf course!" All right, Gareth, we get that you like golf.
"No, people have their own preferences, but I'd rather just decline away. I don't want to keep promoting myself. When I finish I want a relaxed, quieter life."
Enjoy him while you can. The Bale bubble is sealing up; one day it'll be for good.