Gareth Bale has kicked up his Real Madrid storm but who can afford him once the dust settles?
According to those close to him, Gareth Bale will now “let the dust settle” before deciding his future at Real Madrid. His agent, Jonathan Barnett, is due to meet club president Florentino Perez in the next couple of weeks.
It is an interesting phrase to use – “let the dust settle” – given how Bale kicked up a storm with his extraordinary comments following his equally extraordinary intervention in Real's defeat of Liverpool, a victory that brought them their 13th European Cup.
Although it was denied that Bale’s insistence that he needs to play week-in, week-out was pre-planned it was certainly something that has been brewing. That irritation has intensified since Christmas as he appears to have been marginalised.
Tellingly Bale started just one of Real’s seven knock-out ties in the Champions League – including the final – and was hooked at half-time in the one he did start. Injuries have played a part but Bale, as he stated in Kiev, believes he has been fit and firing as his recent goal record - seven in five games - shows. He deserved to start and, frankly, neither Cristiano Ronaldo nor Karim Benzema would have been treated in this way.
Bale is 29 in less than two months' time, and should be at the peak of his career. That he is still capable of excellence was shown in his brilliant over-head kick in the final and his man-of-the-match performance. But he remains on the periphery of a Real team still dominated by Ronaldo, whom he probably expected to have departed by now to make way for the side to be built around him instead.
Bale might consider that Ronaldo’s own outburst, in which he questioned whether he, too, would be staying at the club, and which prompted a frenzied reaction from Real supporters and grabbed the headlines back in Spain, summed up his predicament.
Even after scoring one of the greatest goals ever in a Champions League final; even after then putting it out there that he might leave, Bale was still being overshadowed by Ronaldo.
Although the relationship between the two players has never been great – as one source observed, “it’s not that they have a bad relationship, it’s just that they have no relationship” – the focus of Bale’s frustration is Real coach, Zinedine Zidane.
Zidane has been cool on Bale’s prospects and in his public utterances before the semi-final against Bayern Munich and after Saturday’s final there was an obvious interpretation: he can leave if he wants. Significantly, Zidane spoke differently about Ronaldo. Bale evidently knows where he stands with a coach who is more defensive in his outlook than would be expected.
The question is first: what will that discussion between Barnett and Perez, who signed Bale in 2013, lead to? And second: what assurances can Real give? For Bale the choices are clear: stay and hope things improve and maybe even wait to see if he can outlast Zidane, or look elsewhere. It is on a knife-edge, but the threat to quit is real.
The problem is where does he go? If Ronaldo or Benzema depart – and there are strong suggestions that the French striker may himself want to leave this summer in order to be the main player at another club – then the problem eases for Bale. But Ronaldo’s departure is unlikely while Zidane is under far less pressure than he was earlier in the campaign. Having delivered a hat-trick of Champions League titles he may walk but, again, that must be unlikely.
The truth is the options for Bale, the fourth-best paid player in the world, are limited. Contracted to 2022 and earning more than £300,000-a-week he is an extremely expensive proposition once the transfer fee is factored in. Former Real president Ramon Calderon declared that every club would want him – but how many can afford him?
Paris Saint-Germain are not interested, as they concentrate on retaining Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, both of whom they are adamant will not leave this summer, and meeting the demands of Uefa’s Financial Fair Play rules. Bayern Munich would consider him, especially if Robert Lewandowski leaves, but the finances might eventually put them off. Clubs in Italy are unlikely to appeal to Bale.
In England, Spurs have the option to match any bid accepted by another Premier League club, through a clause in his contract, but are unlikely to want to take that up given the money involved and the need to upgrade the contracts of their existing star players. Manchester City are looking elsewhere – namely Leicester City’s Riyad Mahrez – and while Chelsea remain possible that may only be if Eden Hazard leaves.
The link to Manchester United is historically the strongest, with the club having bid more for Bale than Real when they realised Spurs were prepared to sell him five years ago. United left it too late – he had already reached an agreement with Real – but made it clear that if he was ever willing to return to England they would like to be considered.
Whether that remains the case under Jose Mourinho’s management, given the strains over another of Barnett’s clients, Luke Shaw, is questionable while United have recently invested heavily in Alexis Sanchez and have other priorities in the transfer market. In saying that United would appear to be the club most likely to be interested.
It means that while Bale and his advisers attempt to work out where he is with Real, they may be limited in where he might be without them. That might weaken their negotiating stance.
In the forthcoming meeting Real are expected to tell Bale that they want him and they also probably know that he would prefer to stay. But Bale undoubtedly has a point. A player who has already four Champions League winners' medals and has scored such an amazing goal should be the centre-piece of what happens next at Real rather than having to fight for his future.