Sam Dean: 'Life on the periphery of the footballing world awaits Gareth Bale'
Despite winning a host of trophies since moving to Real, Gareth Bale lost something along the way
Barely 20 minutes had passed in Real Madrid's friendly against Arsenal last week when Gareth Bale emerged from the bench behind Zinedine Zidane and began a slow walk down the touchline at Washington's FedEx Field. To reach the changing rooms, he had to head back towards the corner of the stadium that had been colonised by a white-shirted horde of Madrid fans.
Bale had not warmed up with the other substitutes, so this was the first that these supporters had seen of him. In that moment he would have been forgiven for wondering, with more than a hint of trepidation, what their reaction might be. Little more than 24 hours earlier, Zidane had told the world that Bale had refused to play in Madrid's previous friendly against Bayern Munich.
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Bale broke into a trot as he approached the corner flag, his eyes fixed on the tunnel. The closer he came, the louder the noise from the crowd. These were not jeers, though. Nor were they the screeching whistles that Bale has grown so used to hearing at the Bernabeu.
The American members of the Real fan club were instead rising to their feet in applause, cheering the club's least wanted player for perhaps one final time.
He raised a hand in an acknowledging wave, and disappeared into the tunnel. When he entered the pitch later, as a half-time substitute, he did so with the air of a man who had a point to prove. He scored one, could have had at least two more, and even prevented an Arsenal winner with a goal-line clearance.
At the same time Bale was driving Madrid forward, Marco Asensio was being treated for a ruptured knee ligament. Asensio plays in the same position as Bale and offers the same left-footed threat. The question to Zidane was therefore an obvious one: would Asensio's injury offer Bale a glimmer of hope to stay at the club where he has won all there is to win?
The response was icy cold. "Nothing has changed," Zidane said. "You know the situation."
His decision has been made. Britain's most successful footballing export, the winner of so many titles and scorer of so many goals, no longer has a place at a club who now loathe him. Bale's time is up. The wealth of Chinese club Jiangsu Suning awaits, but so does life on the periphery of the footballing world.
So how did it come to this?
A good place to start would be January 4, 2016. On that morning, Bale had spoken to Florentino Perez, telling Madrid's president how much he valued Rafael Benitez as a manager. A few hours later, Benitez was sacked. More than any other Madrid manager, Benitez had tried to build his side around Bale, trusting him with a more central role, which the Welshman believes to be his best position at the heart of the attack. Bale said that he felt "more involved with the play" under Benitez and, unlike many team-mates, he looked sharp.
Not for the first time, Bale came across as a man removed from the rest of the squad. Such was Benitez's unpopularity with the others that Bale was the only Madrid player to say publicly he was upset by his departure. It would be a mistake, though, to assume things turned sour as soon as Zidane took over. Bale scored five goals in his next three games, including a hat-trick in Zidane's first match.
When he was on this form, Bale was loved as the all-action galactico who had scored crucial goals in the finals of both the Copa del Rey - running from his own half - and the Champions League in his first season. But when he was struggling, he was seen to be the overpaid, injury-prone Welshman who either would or could not assimilate into the culture. A significant part of the problem for Bale has been the very thing that has made him such a devastating player: his body. There have been ankle injuries, calf strains, hip problems and more. He has missed more than 100 games for Madrid. Zidane learnt that other attackers were more reliable.
The trophies kept coming, including three more Champions League titles, but Bale became less pivotal. He played only 13 minutes in the 2017 Champions League final against Juventus and was barely used in the knock-out stages of the following season's competition. That was until the showpiece against Liverpool, when he produced the overhead kick that was surely the greatest goal scored in a European final. It is tempting to wonder now whether Bale regrets his comments after that match. The world had barely picked its jaw up from the floor by the time he was voicing his unhappiness at not starting the game. "I need to be playing week in, week out - and that's not happened this season," he said. The reaction in Madrid was terrible. In one quick interview, Bale had managed to set fire to so much of the goodwill he had generated just moments before.
As superstars go, Bale is not one of the more complex characters. "He's a straightforward kid," Zidane has said. Indeed, his biggest off-field offence in Madrid has seemingly been to indulge his passion for golf and fail to grasp the Spanish language. To his critics, this has been proof of his lack of commitment. "Bale needs to be spoken to, seriously," said Josep Pedrerol, a pundit on laSexta, in 2017. "And if anybody offers €100 million, he must be sold, and you must say, 'thank you' in English, as he will not understand anything else."
Comments from his team-mates have not helped. In a few weeks earlier this year, Marcelo joked that he could not communicate with Bale and Thibaut Courtois said the players had nicknamed him 'the golfer'. It all had an effect on Bale, who further damaged his own cause when he made an offensive gesture towards supporters in February. And yet it is hard to believe that Bale's lifestyle has been the true source of all the animosity. If this is how the Madridistas respond to a player who prefers an early night then how will they react to the antics of someone such as Neymar, the one-man festival who has been linked with a move to the Spanish capital?
It is an easy stick with which to beat an €100.8m signing, but can the Welshman's off-field way of life have truly been his greatest crime in Spain? More likely is that, beneath it all, he is paying the price for not being Cristiano Ronaldo.
When he left London for Madrid in 2013, Bale was lined up as the long-term replacement for Ronaldo. The succession did not go as planned, however, because the long-term replacement for Ronaldo ended up being Ronaldo himself, as the Portuguese winger adapted his game and changed his position to remain the focal point until he was 33.
It is a consequence of Ronaldo's achievements, and his personality, that he is the sun around which all other players must orbit. When he played on the left, with Marcelo in support, the play gravitated towards him and away from Bale. And when he moved into a central position, the change of shape limited Bale's influence. Even in the Champions League final of 2014, when Bale scored a crucial header, it was Ronaldo who was plastered across the papers the next morning. The Portuguese had scored an inconsequential penalty in the 120th minute and had celebrated by ripping off his shirt.
The photographers snapped away, and Ronaldo's abs were the image of the day. Looking back, it is telling that arguably Bale's greatest moment in Spain, that solo goal against Barcelona in 2014, came when Ronaldo was injured.
The shame for Bale is that when Ronaldo finally left last summer, he did not seize the opportunity. Zidane had gone, too, in part because he wanted to sell Bale to fund an overhaul. Perez instead sold Ronaldo to Juventus, and Madrid embarked on a season of angst and underperformance under Julen Lopetegui and Santiago Solari. By March, Zidane had returned and Bale knew his time was coming to an end.
Madrid have to sell in order to buy, and they had to spend big after finishing third last season. So far this summer, they have signed Eden Hazard (€100m), Luka Jovic (€70m), Eder Militao (€50m), Ferland Mendy (€53m) and Rodrygo (€45m). It has been an eye-watering outlay and Bale's wages of €660,000 per week are too high for a player the manager does not want. The post-Ronaldo revolution has come a year later than expected and it has come too late for Bale, who turned 30 this month.
"The reason I wanted to come here was to win all the trophies," Bale said in 2014. History will show that he has achieved that goal. But, as he leaves for the riches of China, the sad truth is that he goes without love and, for all the medals, there remains the sense that something more fundamental has been lost along the way.