Gareth Bale will always be a personality who divides opinion. From the moment he signed for a then world record fee of €101m from Tottenham Hotspur, many doubted in his aptitude to settle and succeed at a club like Real Madrid. But Bale did, initially anyway, even though he was merely a fall-back option. Asked about the signing of the Welshman, Florentino Perez replied: “If Neymar had arrived, then I’m sure we wouldn’t have bought Bale.” Of course, Neymar ended up at Real’s perennial rivals Barcelona, making it appear like Bale vs Neymar would one day replace the ever-hot Cristiano Ronaldo vs Lionel Messi battle – though nothing of the sort happened. Both have since gone their separate ways, Neymar to a new club, Bale, well, to a new state of mind.
However, one thing is for sure, you could certainly have a debate over who had the most success in Spain out of the two, and you wouldn’t be blamed to say it’s Bale. The Cardiff-born winger has been instrumental in big trophies: in his first season he scored the winning goal for the tenth European Cup, and who can forget his solo-effort against Barcelona to win the Copa Del Rey, while Ronaldo was in the stands? He took responsibility in both those finals, and secured a memorable season for Madrid. His big moments continued with a third final goal, this time to double Real’s lead against San Lorenzo in the 2014 Club World Cup showpiece.
Things looked to be back on track in December 2015, when Bale put four past Rayo Vallecano as Madrid won 10-2. And three weeks later, he slotted in another hat-trick to guide his team to a 5-0 win over Deportivo La Coruna. But the trouble with Bale was, when is the next injury? The 31-year old has always been a man of moments, big moments. Consistency has been lacking, particularly over the last five seasons. 2015-16 was probably his last really elite full campaign, during which he netted 19 goals and provided 10 assists in just 23 appearances in La Liga. And then the season later, it all came crumbling down for him. Three injuries within 12 months, from November 2016 to November 2017, Bale missed 186 days through injury, equating to 38 matches in that period. Obviously, it was spread over two seasons, but those six injuries accumulate to him missing an entire league season – from start to finish. It was always going to be tough for him to recover from that, and his game notably changed when he returned in December 2017.
Bale was no longer the explosive player he once was in his first three seasons. But he still had the ability to create something out of nothing, and he had one more big occasion – the 2017-18 UEFA Champions League final against Liverpool. Bale came into it without an injury for nearly six months, since missing three games at the back end of 2017, he was back, and had scored 18 goals from December 11th up until the 19th of May, a week before the European showpiece. In the five games prior to the final, Bale had scored five goals, at least once in each of them, apart from the semi-final second-leg against Bayern Munich – in which he came on for the final 18 minutes, when the job was already done. He was coming into the final as Madrid’s in-form man.
Reports in Spain, and Bale himself, revealed that the former Southampton man requested Zinedine Zidane to allow him to start the final, but he didn’t. And instead, he had to do his heroics from the bench, after being summoned at the hour mark. He scored the mesmerising winning goal two minutes after coming on, and then applied the seal to Madrid’s 13th European Cup with a long-range effort seven minutes from time, albeit, with a helping hand, or two, from Loris Karius.
Immediately after the final, Bale, who’s relationship with head coach Zidane had reportedly reached the point of no return, spoke to the media on the pitch:
“Obviously I need to be playing week in, week out, and that hasn’t happened this season. I had a five/six-week injury at the start of the season and I’ve been fit ever since. I’ll have to sit down in the summer and discuss it with my agent and take it from there.”
The club made a serious mistake that season, in not realising that that was the moment to seize the opportunity. Bale, who you could essentially describe as a chronically injured player, had just scored two goals to win a European Cup. He hadn’t been injured for five months, and genuinely wanted to leave if given the opportunity. Instead they decided to keep him, against Zidane’s wishes. With a contract until 2022, the club may have even recouped a large percentage of their initial €101m investment in Bale.
Two summers later, he’s still here, and now, it appears like he’s here to stay. In an interview with YouTuber Erik Anders Lang in May, Bale was fairly open about his time at Madrid, the criticism he receives, and how he handles it. But here’s one answer which really struck a note with Madrid fans:
“I’ve had 80,000 people in a stadium whistle at me because I haven’t played well. I’ve had it a few times! It’s not nice and it doesn’t do your confidence any good either. This is the biggest question and I just don’t get it. You would expect that if you’re not having a good time on the pitch, your fans would get behind you and try to help you do better because it’ll make them happy. But it seems that they do the opposite. They whistle you, which consequentially makes you feel worse, you lose your confidence, you play worse and then that makes them even more upset.”
Firstly, I agree with Bale, the fans at the Santiago Bernabeu shouldn’t do that, even Ronaldo experienced the same treatment. Here’s what the Portuguese came out to say in April 2017:
“I’m not asking them to name streets after me, the only thing I ask is that they don’t boo me here. I want them to stop booing me because I always give my best and even when I don’t score, I try to help Real Madrid.”
But it’s the nature of them, it’s the nature of fans so spoiled by the riches and the silverware associated to the club, they know no better but to want and expect the best. Nothing summarises the ambitions, perhaps greed, of Madrid fans, than Eden Hazard’s official presentation – when a group of fans at the Bernabeu were chanting “We want Mbappe”. This during the revealing of a player who the club just spent €115m on, but they still demanded the signing of the Paris Saint Germain superstar.
The fact is, Ronaldo got booed, but he shook off the criticism, performed and silenced his critics. Zidane got booed, but recovered and performed. Heck, the club president even gets white flags waved against him when results aren’t going to plan. So many Real legends have been booed, but why are the fans in the Bernabeu only painted in a negative way? These are the same fans who have stood up and handed standing ovations for the likes of Ronaldinho, Diego Maradona, Andrea Pirlo, Alessandro Del Piero and Andres Iniesta – this is a place where quality is measured.
Perhaps what I’m trying to say would be better explained by Carlo Ancelotti. In an interview with El Mundo Deportivo in 2014, this is how the Italian described the Bernabeu:
“In Parma, we have a theatre called Regio, a very dangerous place for opera singers. The crowd is tough. But he who succeeds there is also proclaimed a genius, just like at the Bernabeu.”
Bale himself isn’t entirely at fault, and without sounding like a relationship counselor, just as in any relationship, you get out what you put into it. And quite frankly, Bale hasn’t put a lot into it in recent seasons. I think back to after the Kiev final, and although Zidane specifically requested for the sale of Bale, I can’t help to think that deep down, Bale himself must have regretted not returning to the Premier League when Manchester United were after him at the request of Jose Mourinho. But I also think the Welshman hasn’t been mentally at Madrid since Kiev, and his performances have demonstrated this. He just doesn’t look like a player worth fighting for, he doesn’t look as menacing, as hungry, or as bothered as the likes of Vinicius Junior or Rodrygo Goes. And still, when Zidane did give him a handful of opportunities at the start of this season, he didn’t take them, and he looked a shadow of the Bale that once was.
The issue Madrid now face, is that they only really have two options, if a third doesn’t materialise. The first option is to allow him to run down his contract, but that’s not what Zidane would want, to have a player who creates negative press about his managerial approach, meaning Zidane is always under the microscope for an issue that should have been dealt with years ago. This option also creates a headache for the board, who are targeting a huge summer transfer window in 2021, including the signing of Mbappe, who’s salary and total package price will likely be around the €300m mark. It’ll be difficult for Madrid to afford Bale’s €14.5m a season, and Mbappe, who will earn even more than that. The second option is paying him outright for the remainder of his contract, which AS reported would cost the club in the region of €60m. This would make him a free agent, and he would then be able to do whatever he wants, it’s a big investment to make, especially as the club have confirmed they won’t be making any major signings this summer due to the financial struggles associated with Covid-19. But it looks like they might not have any other option. The third would be for a team to come in for him, and for Bale to agree to reduce his wages. This time last summer, the Welshman was well on his way to China as Jiangsu Sunin were prepared to make him the best paid player in the world, but the stumbling block was Madrid’s demand for a transfer fee, and then, the move fell apart. Again, another terrible decision by the club, how shortsighted can you be?
Bale isn’t solely to blame, and neither is the club – both have handled the situation equally poor. But for me, I don’t understand why a player who’s 31, at the peak of his career, wouldn’t want to play? He will still be on a large salary elsewhere, so why is money an issue to Bale? Surely the obvious solution to a professional who isn’t appreciate at one place, is to leave, and find an environment that does suit you, and move on from it? It might only be my opinion, but if at first Bale’s position at Madrid was due to the club’s mistakes, now, it’s entirely on Bale. The club and Zidane want him gone, he knows that, and he also knows exactly what he has to do to leave, but he won’t. It’s now not a matter of football, it’s a matter of ego. Bale might win the long and painful battle, but the longer this goes on, the more his legacy is tarnished. And what a shame it would be, because boy, what a superb legacy he has, or had.