Back in March, I wrote an article trying to explain the reasons behind the deteriorating relationship between the Santiago Bernabeu and Gareth Bale. In short, while most socios initially saw in Bale a heir to Cristiano’s throne, the former’s endless sequence of injuries made them realize that the Welshman wasn’t the dependable leader the club needed, even if Bale kept scoring memorable goals in top-level matches.
In the last fourteen months, the forward has not helped his cause with a few bizarre public gestures, but especially making his unhappiness heard by the whole world right after the Champions League final in Kiev. Like Cristiano, he thought that was a great moment not to celebrate a huge win – and an unforgettable goal in Bale’s case – but to discuss his future far from the club. To many socios, that was the last straw. The fact that Bale started well last season only added insult to injury, as he only confirmed what most expected: after scoring a few goals, he picked up an injury in September, and out the window went whatever hope there was that Benzema and him could cover for Mr Ronaldo.
But if the Bernabeu vs Bale is already a clear case of disappointment, Zidane’s statements yesterday add a bizarre twist to a matter that seemed clear. I have to admit that, while some British correspondents had warned me that Bale was under the impression that Zidane did not like him at all as early as a few days before the Kiev final, I never bought it until now.
I never believed in the Frenchman’s animosity towards Bale because there’s plenty of public statements from Zizou explaining that the Welshman, Benzema and Ronaldo would always start whenever they were available, and his track record proves it. Even at the end of the 2017/2018 season, when Zidane brought Bale back from injury bit by bit, some English media stated that he was freezing him off, while I just thought it was level-headed caution. Now I believe I might have been wrong.
I still think that Zidane didn’t really give up on the Welshman until the latter stages of last season, when he took over the team for a brutally frustrating three months with no titles in play. The French manager did give Bale the nod as he came back: the Welshman started and played the full match against both Celta (scored) and Huesca. Then came off the bench for 26 minutes in a loss to Valencia, played 77 minutes against Eibar, 19 versus Leganes, 30 against Athletic and 71 in Getafe. This last match I clearly remember: Bale looked totally detached from the contest, his teammates and the opposition, who back then still could classify for this season’s Champions League and did not make things easy for Real Madrid.
But, at least in my view, the match that finished Bale for all intents and purposes in the eyes of Zidane was the short trip to Vallecas in the 35th week of the season. He played all 90 minutes and earned zero grades from both Marca and As. After the match, Zidane said that “We did nothing. […] I always defend my players, but today I can’t. We can’t play like this”. Asked then if Bale had been focused during the last few matches – the Welshman had missed an unbelievable one-on-one – Zidane answered: “Ask him”. He was obviously in no mood to defend his players, especially Bale.
This match in Vallecas marked a sharp contrast with another Real Madrid visit to Rayo’s stadium. It was the final weeks of the 2015/2016 season, and Zidane’s team was trying to catch up with Barcelona. With a midweek Champions League quarterfinal match versus Manchester City coming up, Zidane gave the team to Bale. Cristiano and Casemiro were suspended, and the Frenchman rested Ramos and Modric, so the Welshman was the leader on the pitch. If those weren’t enough absentees, Benzema picked up an injury at the end of the first half.
Bale led that depleted team to come back and win the match from 2-0 down. His last 30 minutes were all that any socio ever expected of a player destined to replace Cristiano. Indeed, comparing his performance three years earlier to what we saw back in April could explain why Zidane wants him out. After those 90 minutes in the East of Madrid, the Welshman did not play again last season. Three more matches – Villarreal, Real Sociedad, Betis – and not a single minute for Bale.
One can even understand that Zidane does not want to keep Bale in the squad, or that the club is also tired with Bale’s agent making noise a bit too often even for the standards of a superstar’s representative. But the Frenchman’s recent statements make no sense from the club perspective. It was already well-known that Bale was on his way out, but I can’t see how this helps to offload the Welshman, who cost close to 100Mn, at a decent price. Any potential bidder will lowball now, confident that Real Madrid and especially Zidane are dying to sell.
Real Madrid’s curse of not knowing how to deal with the departure of his stars is still there: even with all that’s happened in the last year or so, Bale will always be a memorable player in Real Madrid’s history, and deserves better than the coach publicly stating that he’s anxious to see him go. Similarly to many instances in the past — Raúl, Casillas or even Di Stéfano come to mind — the club is losing another chance to part ways with a legend in exemplary manner.
Two potential destinations have been mentioned regarding Bale. His choice will probably tell a lot about his commitment to football and desire to compete. If he goes back to England – and to Tottenham? – the 30 year old will show that he wants to right the damage that his last season with Real Madrid may have done to his reputation. However, if he chooses China, as it seems to be the case, he will disappoint many Madridistas who, remembering his numerous moments of glory with the white shirt, would want him to show what is worth at the top level.