In the aftermath of victory in Kiev, Cristiano Ronaldo signalled he was done. “It has been very nice being at Real Madrid,” he said in the post-match scrum that followed the 3-1 defeat of Liverpool, a fourth Champions League in five years.
Within a few short weeks, Ronaldo was headed to Juventus. A new era had to begin.
Time, then, for Gareth Bale to step out of the shadows?
After all, he had just scored one of the greatest goals to grace a European final, a dazzling overhead kick, one of two that did for Liverpool.
Except, he too wanted to leave. “I need to be playing week in week out, and that’s not happened this season for one reason or another,” he told the British TV audience. I had a five-or six-week injury at the start of the season and I’ve been fit ever since so now I have to sit down in the summer and discuss it with my agent and take it from there.”
Bale remained at Real, after the departure of Zinedine Zidane, the coach who had been reluctant to select him, opened the path to playing more football. He was, though, almost powerless in Real’s slide from greatness into farce, a period of seven days in which his team exited all three competitions, twice at the hands of Barcelona, then surrendered the Champions League to Ajax, and all at the Santiago Bernabeu.
Over those three disastrous matches, Santiago Solari, the manager who stepped in for the ill-fated Julen Lopetegui, only selected Bale as a starter for last weekend’s home Liga defeat to Barcelona, where he left the field to boos from home supporters. If Bale does represent a new era, it is one of decline, where the club’s dominance of European football has been squandered rapidly and embarrassingly.
He is hardly alone in guilt, with the likes of Luka Modric and Toni Kroos desperately losing form and Sergio Ramos getting himself banned for the Ajax game through his own stupidity. But, Bale still bore the brunt on Tuesday night when, after coming on a sub, he was forced to play on with an injury and was again booed by the club’s fans.
A player who came as the world’s most expensive player and has played a leading role in the club’s reassertion of its dominance over the rest of the continent’s elite, who has won more European Cups than any other Briton, is cast as an outcast in Spain. A by-product of the club’s haughtiness is a supreme fickleness. Not even Ronaldo felt fully loved at the place he scored 450 goals.
Bale’s current popularity may not have been aided by the words of his agent, Jonathan Barnett.
The fans are a disgrace. In the six years he has been in Spain, he has won everything. Those fans should be kissing his feet.
But while saying that, Barnett also said that Bale would stay at Real, a club where he remained happy. Recent comments by Marcelo, who said Bale does not speak Spanish after almost six years in the country and Thibaut Courtois, who said Bale was obsessed by golf, suggested an alienation from team-mates, but Barnett dismissed them, saying Bale spoke Spanish just fine.
It might also pointed out that Courtois’ “golfer” description came as he was asked to describe teammates in a single word. Nobody is denying that Bale, who has a golf course built into the grounds of his villa, loves nothing better than playing a few iron shots.
Bale is contracted until 2022, will reach his 30th birthday in July, and earns £350,000 per week – after tax – a wage that puts him beyond the reach of just about everyone, including Manchester United, the club with whom he has been linked ever since he left Tottenham in the summer of 2013.
With Alexis Sanchez already on United’s books on similar wages, and new deals probably required to keep the likes of David de Gea and Paul Pogba in Manchester, then Bale looks an extravagance beyond United.
If Bale is unwanted at Real Madrid, then they will struggle for suitors to take him off their hands.
Meanwhile, the question remains over whether Bale has actually been a success at the club. The memories from his first season, when he scored a solo goal in a Clasico Copa del Rey final defeat of Barcelona, then the goal in Lisbon that edged Real ahead of Atletico in the 2014 Champions League final, have faded.
There have been great moments along the way, such as winning the Champions League in his home city of Cardiff in 2017, and then Kiev, but repeated injuries and an inability to claim the full faith of coaches have been a continuing narrative.
The “BBC” combination of Bale, Karim Benzema and Ronaldo never lived up to the heights set at Barcelona by Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar, and Bale has won just one Spanish league title as the club’s great rivals have dominated the domestic scene. That dominance of the Champions League has masked a club with severe structural issues in the same way that Bale’s great moments have deflected from what has often been a frustrating time in Madrid.
His powerful style, which once suited the Premier League so well, can look unsophisticated in the more refined air of Spanish football. “Bale doesn’t know how to play football,” snarked Santiago Segurola, a leading columnist. “He only knows how to run.”
It may also contribute to the many injuries he has sustained, especially the litany of muscle problems he has suffered. And with little leeway for experimentation at a club where success and disaster are intermingled, with there being no middle ground, Bale has proved unable to reinvent himself.
His goal return of 77 goals in 147 Liga games for Real is decent enough, if not on the Messi/Ronaldo scale, and a comparison has to be made with his impact as a Tottenham player.
When Real paid €100m for him in 2013, they were buying a player who was unquestionably the most talented in English football, just as Ronaldo had been when lured from United four years earlier. But unlike Ronaldo, and perhaps because of Ronaldo, he has been unable to impose himself in the same way he did with Tottenham, and also does with Wales.
When playing for his country, Bale has long assumed responsibility and leadership that he has never been able to exert in Madrid. For the Welsh team, and particularly during their run at the Euro 2016 finals, he has adopted an almost sacrificial role, soaking up tackles and attention to give team-mates like Aaron Ramsey chance to shine.
With players like Ronaldo, Ramos and Marcelo around, he has never been able to exert that same influence.
Yet with the passing on of that generation, with Marcelo currently not in the team, Ronaldo gone and Ramos a figure whose dark arts are now more hindrance than a benefit, Bale has not been able to step into the limelight.
Real this season, particularly since Solari replaced Lopetegui, have been placing faith in a younger generation than Bale, with Vinicius Junior and Marco Asensio to the fore. After Real’s week of disaster comes a vacuum in which the club will be playing for practically nothing beyond staying on the top four, and insurrectional talk of a clear-out of players who have failed the greatest club of all.
A new coach will come in, with Jose Mourinho mooted for a return to a club that has plunged into the abyss so soon after those galactic set of successes. And Bale, despite the protestations of Barnett, looks almost certain to be one of the first names on the departure list.