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The On-going Gareth Bale Conundrum in Madrid

Written by Hasan Karim

The complicated love-triangle of Gareth Bale, Zinedine Zidane and the Real Madrid fans rages on. Is the quadruple Champions League winner a club legend, or the robin to Ronaldo's batman that never quite worked?

When Zinedine Zidane said this summer it would be “best for everyone” if Gareth Bale left, the big statement was met with mixed reactions. Sections of the Real Madrid fanbase welcomed the idea whilst others argued that the treatment of the Welshman was unfair and disrespectful. Probably not the words Bale wanted to hear, but did he really care?

Joining Los Blancos in the summer of 2013 for a then-world-record £85 million, the 24-year-old was seen as a highlight reel package – the one-man wrecking ball who had been so crucial for Spurs that previous season. The hype was huge, not unlike former Premier League star and his new teammate, Cristiano Ronaldo. And in the six-and-a-half seasons since, on paper, Bale’s Real resume makes reasonable reading. As he nears 250 Madrid appearances in all competitions, he’s cleared a century of goals and picked up 13 trophies.

His particular talent appeared to be producing those extraordinary moments when it mattered the most to clinch silverware, most notably the brutal pace to beat Marc Bartra and score in a Clásico Copa del Rey final in 2014, and then his brilliant bicycle-kick to help Madrid to victory over Liverpool in the 2018 Champions League final. That latter goal came 3 minutes after coming on as a substitute, replacing Isco – but not starting that game was clearly painful for the boy from Cardiff, his frustration evident in a post-match interview.

Bale’s comments sparked renewed speculation rather than further celebrations in Kiev, as he claimed he needed to be playing week in, week out, and that he would be discussing his future with his agent. But the threat of an exit didn’t materialise, and with Ronaldo moving on, there instead appeared an opportunity for Bale to become the point of reference for the team. Sadly for him, he produced a largely listless campaign in 2018-19, netting just 14 times in 42 games – his second-lowest goalscoring tally in his time in the Spanish capital.

The cracks had developed before, of course. Relations had been rocky with Carlo Ancelotti before Zidane’s first stint as manager, and Bale’s detachment from all around him on the training pitches had long been a running theme. The Welshman kept himself to himself, and when you consider his poor command of Spanish too, he really was the outsider looking in.

Not that it’s been just Gareth’s fault. Zidane was brutal about Bale being surplus to requirements in July, valuing impact over tact, only for Madrid to then pull the plug on an eye-watering transfer to Jiangsu Suning. There have been the increasingly regular whistles from an exigent, impatient home crowd at the Bernabéu, and the constant injuries have ruined any hope of consistency. In fact, according to Transfermarkt, up until this season Bale had missed 75 Real Madrid games because of injury, riling Madridistas yet further.

His unavailability for his club in between international breaks led to more tensions, with former Madrid striker Predrag Mijatovic claiming on Cadena SER radio that “the first thing he thinks about is Wales, then golf, and after that Real Madrid.” Bale’s response? After helping his country qualify for Euro 2020, he posed with a banner belonging to a Welsh fan which read: “Wales. Golf. Madrid. In that order.” More, maybe irreparable damage done.

So what next? His high wages and Los Blancos’ determination to recoup the bulk of the fee they spent on him mean Bale is hard to shift (as Zidane found out last summer), but a return to Spurs with Christian Eriksen heading the other way may not be too fanciful, especially with José Mourinho now in charge at Tottenham. China have new wage-cap limitations, so maybe that ship has sailed, which leaves previous supposed suitors Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain, but both now presumably have other younger, less expensive and less injury-prone fish to fry. So for now, Gareth will have to sit tight, and mostly on the bench.

Looking further ahead, should he call time on his Madrid stint and make his final Bernabéu bow, will history be kind on Bale? His Wikipedia page will focus on the part he played in the team who won four Champions Leagues in five seasons as part of the “BBC” with Karim Benzema and Cristiano, and the record books will show how he became the best British footballer in LaLiga, both in terms of time and trophies. But the deep dive says different.

Bale will never be a darling of the Madridistas like Ronaldo or Sergio Ramos, so he probably won’t be afforded legendary status by them. But you just sense that he won’t care one jot. 2014 and 2018, those were unforgettable moments…and probably unrepeatable ones too.

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