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Gareth Bale's Madrid Exit Is Marked by Bitterness, Resentment and Relief

Gareth Bale's Madrid Exit Is Marked by Bitterness, Resentment and Relief

Wednesday, 30 September, 2020 - 07:30
The relationship between Gareth Bale and Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane has been ‘non-existent for a long time’. Photograph: Susana Vera/Reuters

The saddest thing about Gareth Bale’s departure from Real Madrid is that no one is really sad at all. Instead, there is anger and disappointment but mostly a kind of weary relief, a release. He’s gone? Good, we can all get on with our lives. And no one more so than him: maybe the Welshman can play a bit of football again, and maybe he’ll be brilliant too, just not at the Bernabéu where it has been effectively over for some time. Now at least, now at last, it is actually over – four European Cups, two league titles and more than a hundred goals later.


Which, when you put it like that ...


In the Champions League final in Kiev in 2018, Bale came on as a sub and produced an absurd overhead kick before scoring a second that clinched his and Madrid’s fourth Champions League in five years, a run unmatched in 50 years. All spring, though, he had watched sadly from the sideline, affected and unable to understand why he wasn’t playing. So, another medal around his neck, still on the pitch, he said he was considering leaving. It sounded like a threat then, and it wasn’t welcome; but over the past year or more, it would have been received as a promise.


Had he gone then, it would have been some way to bid farewell, status secured. Two years on, there is barely a goodbye, better days disappearing into the distance. Last year was a season too far, maybe even two, and the determination to avoid a third is written into the contract that takes Bale back to Tottenham – those clauses as eloquent a comment as there is. Last summer, Madrid reneged on a deal to China, thinking they could get a fee only to see the whole thing collapse. “If he goes tomorrow, so much the better,” Zinedine Zidane had said. They must wish he had; if only they had accepted. Now, it looks like they are effectively paying €17m a year for him to go.


Something had to give, someone did: in the end it was Madrid. It might at times have been hard to understand Bale’s own unwillingness to lose out financially in return for some football but with this deal he doesn’t have to. For him, it is the perfect move; for Madrid it’s not a great solution, but it’s something. At last an unhappy relationship is resolved. Bale threatened to stay, although he too wanted to leave. While his camp hasn’t been prepared to back down economically, they sought an exit which they eventually found at Spurs. For Madrid there’s a saving and they have avoided being stuck for another season, one problem fewer.


That it has come to this. It didn’t need to. Look at the stats, the highlights, and Bale has been a success, but there is no lament at his leaving, no talk of him being a legend. Instead there is bitterness, resentment, an expression of how broken it had all become, a desire only to draw a line under all this. “Bye, Bale”, said the cover of AS, flatly. “Bale cost €101m and he has left behind a small collection of key goals, a long medical history and more off-field controversies than Madrid would have liked,” it ran inside, “Every minute Gareth has played cost Madrid €23,800.”


That “small collection of key goals” includes three in the European Cup final, two of them the winner, plus a penalty in a third. It included perhaps the best European Cup final goal in history. It includes maybe the best Copa del Rey final goal ever, too. There have been clásico strikes and 105 goals and 68 assists in 251 games. The controversies basically amount to liking golf, not going out late and barely speaking Spanish, hardly heinous crimes. And as for the money, it will cost them considerably more than €23,800 for him not to play.


On the face of it, then, that is an absurd judgment but few are prepared to indulge him any more. Even those defending him, insisting he was good or outstanding, want this over now. No one doubts this had to happen and there can be no real surprise that supporters are virtually unanimous in being pleased to see him leave or unprepared to protect him, nor leap to his defence. This end seems inevitable now, but it was avoidable once; it’s just that no one seemed particularly interested in avoiding it, little done to protect his legacy. There is no enthusiasm for Bale and no enthusiasm from him either. The last few months have been as empty as the stadiums in which he sat alone.


“Zidane gets what he wants”, said the headline on the front of Marca on Thursday morning. His relationship with Bale has been non-existent for a long time, and he resisted attempts from the club to fight for a reconciliation. He did not see in Bale the commitment he claimed he wanted, nor the performances that would have forced his hand. Nor was he prepared to offer many opportunities to do so. At times Bale saw intransigence there, coldness, maybe even a touch of vindictiveness.


After Kiev, Bale did not leave but Zidane and Ronaldo did. Zidane’s return was bad news, Bale knew. In the meantime, the months Zidane was away, he hadn’t made himself untouchable. He did not step into Ronaldo’s boots in 2018-19, perhaps shouldering a lot of the public blame for a collective collapse and feeling like a scapegoat. Then, having tried to leave but found himself still there, seeing the doors close on him, the next season was even worse. He hardly stepped on to the pitch by the back end of 2019-20.


Even when he was playing at the start of last season, he admitted he wasn’t doing so happily. Slowly, steadily he slipped from the team. From everything, in fact. By the end, he wasn’t even traveling, by request: why bother when there was no chance of getting on the pitch? He disengaged, didn’t want to know, and didn’t feel part of it. He just wanted to get through it, but there was also a defiance now: against the manager, the president, everyone. He started just one game after lockdown. When he did play there was a sense that he wasn’t really there.


“Wales. Golf. Madrid” was a joke but it expressed something palpable and anger followed, many fans feeling insulted, when they bothered at all. They see no reason why they should be sad that he is going or, for now, grateful that he came in the first place. Maybe one day. But even if there is recognition then, it is unlikely that there will be warmth.


London is different, a chance to start again. The blunt truth is that he had become an irrelevance here; on Tottenham High Road, it could hardly be any more different. From indifference, there is excitement now. An obsession for Daniel Levy, Spurs are set to re-sign maybe the best footballer they have had in 20 years, although inactivity means it is hard to judge if he is still at that level.


The reason for the inactivity and the explanation for the performances when he plays invites optimism, though. When he appeared, it was within a context which is no longer the case, one from which he is released with a point to prove, a place to do so. There is a mission where before there was none, and he is in extraordinary shape to take it on: there is no belly, no let-up, and there can be no recriminations about his work, even if he was denied the chance to demonstrate that. He now has a manager who says he wants him and fans who could not be fonder of him. He will have minutes too, the chance to show he hasn’t forgotten; that he is still a footballer, and a bloody good one: the kind that goes to Real Madrid.


Even last year there was a hint that Zidane saw something in him that the other players didn’t have, starting him at Sevilla, against Atlético and in the clásico. There were moments, reminders of his talent but they were few and by the end the man who was once the most expensive footballer in the world, the player president Florentino Pérez insisted was a future Ballon d’Or winner, and who was projected as their leader post-Ronaldo, finished his final season with just one complete Champions League game and having played less than 30% of Madrid’s minutes in La Liga. He has not scored a league goal in a year now.


As the final, sad days slipped away, he sat in the stands and smiled when the cameras focused on him because there was nothing else he could do. It’s not like he could play any more. The last time he set foot on the pitch dressed in white was at the club’s empty training ground, a reluctant figure hanging back during celebrations of a league title which neither he nor anyone else felt was his. He had checked out long ago.


(The Guardian)


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