Gareth Bale will leave Real Madrid underappreciated but with a stack of trophies

Welsh forward has scored more than 100 goals, delivered in the biggest matches and won a haul of medals

Real Madrid's Welsh forward Gareth Bale reacts during the Spanish League football match between Real Madrid CF and SD Huesca at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid on March 31, 2019. / AFP / JAVIER SORIANO
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The story goes that it was once he saw Gareth Bale’s image spread over several storeys of a New York billboard, Florentino Perez, the president of Real Madrid, determined this was the footballer he wanted to define his second decade in charge of the club.

It was the summer of 2013, and Bale was the dominant face of a US broadcaster’s advertising its coverage of English football.

Madrid that August made Bale, then of Tottenham Hotspur, the most expensive signing in football history, at €100 million, although the true size of the fee only emerged later, Madrid apparently anxious that Cristiano Ronaldo's name should not be abruptly removed from the top of the list of the all-time costliest. Status, however symbolic, matters to certain individuals.

Status matters to Madrid, too, and the most successful club in the annals of the European Cup had proudly captured, in Bale, a fabulously thrilling athlete, one whose speed and eye for the spectacular appealed to a Madrid Perez had once built around Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, and Brazil’s Ronaldo. Bale was presented as part of that tradition: a true ‘Galactico’ for Madrid’s second Galactico era.

Stunningly, he won four Uefa Champions League title within five years of arriving. Yet, here, after a title-empty sixth season, Bale is being not so much ushered towards the exit as carted onto the pavement as if by bouncers.

Zidane, the manager for almost half of Bale’s Bernabeu career, made brutally public the breakdown of faith between employer and superstar at the weekend. “The club is working on him leaving,” said Zidane, “and if it happens soon, so much the better.”

Bale’s current Madrid contract runs to 2022, and, at 30 years old and on a salary of around €15m a year, his possible destinations are limited. Madrid are seeking a substantial transfer fee but will weigh that against savings on his wages in the event of his departure.

What they have no concern about is significant protest from supporters. Bale has been booed at the Bernabeu over recent months, and has established a remarkably small constituency of madidrista devotees.

The Spanish newspaper El Mundo yesterday [Monday] summed up the indifference: Bale "is not a leader, he's not consistent, he doesn't strike back in situations of adversity."

Yet quite apart from the four Champions League titles, the Primera Liga triumph of 2016-17, he has supplied the club with some of its most famous moments.

Moments like the breathtaking solo goal, a run from within his own half of the pitch finishing with the winning strike in the Copa del Rey final against Barcelona in 2014. Or the goal in extra-time in the European Cup final that year, that helped Real beat Atletico Madrid in Lisbon.

Above all, there was the astonishing, inspired overhead kick in the European Cup final in Kiev in 2018, the first of two Bale goals that carried Madrid from 1-1 against Liverpool to 3-1 victors. And he only came on in the 61st minute. In the 64th, he scored perhaps the finest goal in any Champions League final.


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But that night in Ukraine would also bring sharp reminder of the tense, damaged relationship between the player, the coach Zidane, and Real the institution. Barely three minutes after the final whistle, Bale, being unusually outspoken, told a television interview how frustrated he felt with his role as a substitute and how he wanted to address it.

He would have to wait for a chance to do so with Zidane, who quit days later, only to return after nine turbulent months. The coach came back with the same view of the Welshman as erratic, not so much because Bale’s gifts had deserted him but because his muscular injuries had become tiresomely regular.

In total there have been 22 different spells out of the Madrid team with injury in six years - and his capacity to shape a contest suffered by comparison with the much-missed Cristiano Ronaldo, who left for Juventus in the summer of 2018.

But that stack of gold medals, not to mention the 102 goals he has scored for Madrid will remain with Bale, a handsome record, and an argument against the exaggerated suggestion that Bale somehow lacked the character to fit in at Madrid.

Yes, he has sometimes chosen to keep the company of his family or old friends on the golf course rather than club colleagues. Granted, he may well be remembered as the least glamorous of the second age of Madrid’s galacticos.

But most of the modern Madrid stars, from David Beckham to Zidane the player, would envy Bale his tally of prizes, and his expansive catalogue of photogenic moments in major finals. As for the Bernabeu’s latest galactico-elect, Eden Hazard, he should look at Bale’s chequered experience as a warning about how demanding this club can be.