Madrid's dysfunctional family set for break-up
Third straight Euro triumph not enough to keep Real team together as Bale and Ronaldo hint at exit.
After the lightning, the thunder. Minutes after blitzing Liverpool to claim a historic third successive Champions League title, the cracks in Real Madrid's impeccable facade were already beginning to appear.
Before the victorious team had even left the pitch, their match-winner had already declared his intention to leave, and their star player had intimated similarly. Their coach was fielding pointed questions in his press conference. It was as if Real's impenetrable front of unity and desire had held together just long enough for them to achieve the unthinkable. But it wouldn't hold a second longer.
In a way, there was something rather poignant about seeing immaculate order give way to consummate chaos, almost before our eyes. Madrid in the season and Madrid in the off-season are two very different clubs: one run by a common purpose, the other by a thousand individual agendas. Yet it was still startling just how instantly the transition seemed to occur.
Zinedine Zidane was trying his very hardest to savour what was left of the moment. "What will be doing is to think about the present," he said. "We will think about the match, the major achievement of tonight, and we have to focus solely on that."
But it was like trying to put a party popper back in its tube. Zidane knows better than anyone what comes next: two months of whispered briefings and contract diplomacy and highly-strung internal politics, the sort of sun-baked nonsense with which anyone vaguely connected with Real will be bleakly and dizzily familiar.
The tiresome biennial break-dance with Cristiano Ronaldo will naturally devour the most of the headlines and headspace over the coming weeks, but in many ways it is the fate of their two-goal substitute that constitutes the most intriguing sub-plot of Real's summer.
For all its breathtaking audacity and skill, perhaps the wider significance of Gareth Bale's spectacular overhead kick was to underline the sublime and the ridiculous of modern Madrid: the sheer decadence of being able to bring a world record signing off the bench to win you a Champions League final, and then most likely sell him immediately afterwards. Like brushing your teeth with Perrier, like putting the Taj Mahal on Airbnb, like using the Bayeux Tapestry as an oven glove.
How luxuriantly well-off do you have to be not to need a player who can do something like that? How can a player this good feel this unwanted?
It was a reminder, too, of a fact that has perhaps been casually overlooked over the last couple of seasons, as Bale's Real Madrid career has tapered and noodled towards its sketchily inevitable conclusion: that for most of an average year, Bale remains a thrillingly elite player, a giant in a team of full of them, who by consequence can appear disappointingly normal-sized. Capable of true brilliance - that solo goal in the Copa del Rey final, some gargantuan performances for Wales, virtually the whole of the 2012-13 season with Tottenham - and just ferociously competent most of the rest of the time.
Yet for whatever reason, Zidane has never quite trusted Bale in the biggest games. He started just one of Real's seven Champions League knockout games this season: the 3-1 home defeat to Juventus during which he was hooked at half-time. Even a late-season run of form was not enough to secure his starting place in the final. "Obviously I was very disappointed," he admitted afterwards. "In my head I felt like I should start. I'd been playing well."
Privately, Bale believes Zidane's indifference towards him is personal as much as professional. It is understood that despite Bale's momentous contribution to the final, the pair did not even exchange words for some time after the game had ended. And so in the aftermath of Madrid's triumph, Bale began his manoeuvres, with a precision that suggested it had been planned sometime in advance.
"Obviously I feel that I need to be playing every week," he said. "If that's not the case, I have to sit down and see what I'm doing. I have some time to reflect and relax, and see where things go. Maybe I'll be staying here, maybe not."
People in happy marriages don't going around saying, "Maybe we'll stay married, maybe not". And even in Zidane's measured response, there was a glaring point of difference between how he dealt with the rumours of Ronaldo's discontent ("Cristiano must stay with us, he will stay with us, yes or yes") and Bale's ("Everyone has their own future to think about"). The Madrid dressing room is believed to be comfortable with the idea of Bale's departure. And so: where might he go?
Sorry Tottenham fans, but it's not going to be you. The club might just be able to afford his salary if Bale were prepared to take a hit; they might just be able to afford the transfer fee if Daniel Levy could strike the bargain of the century with his old pal Florentino Perez; they might just be able to afford the inevitable wage inflation that Bale's new team-mates would certainly demand in response. But there's not a hope in hell they could afford all three.
Manchester United want him, could afford him, think they could get him, and are known to be the preferred option in the Bale camp. Jose Mourinho would appreciate his work-rate, his height and physicality, his maturity and experience.
United fans would appreciate his flair, his pace, his knack for the spectacular. The United board would appreciate the intent and impact of signing one of the world's best attacking players, who at the age of 28 should theoretically be somewhere near his peak. Marcus Rashford would doubtless appreciate some extra spare time at weekends. It all seems to make sense.
But it's a long summer, a long road, with plenty of fluff and nonsense to be negotiated along the way. What we can say is that once again, on the biggest stage of all, Bale delivered. A man often faintly maligned as a gilded makeweight, a nearly-but-not-quite sort of player, a Marks and Spencer's Ronaldo, has now scored the winning goal in two Champions League finals.
If that was to be his swansong at Madrid, then it really was some way to go. (© Independent News Service)