Gareth Bale – From king of the world, to the joker in the deck

Cast your mind back to May 19th 2013. Tottenham Hotspur had to beat Sunderland at White Hart Lane to have a chance of claiming the final Champions League spot, whilst bitter rivals Arsenal faced Newcastle in a tense final day showdown.

Heading into added time, any hope André Villas-Boas’ men had of playing in Europe’s primary competition seemed to be all but over as Arsenal led at St James’ Park by a goal to nil, whilst his Spurs side were fizzling out to a 0-0 draw.

But like so often that season – Gareth Bale produced something magical.

Picking the ball up 25-yards from goal on the right, Bale controlled a spinning ball back to earth before squaring up young Sunderland debutant Adam Mitchell.

The winger inched menacingly one way, then the next, before knocking the ball onto his left foot and unleashing an unerring strike that flew past Simon Mignolet.

But whilst such a goal could easily be the greatest of any given player’s career, this was far from a flash in the pan from Bale. In fact – it had become the Welshman’s party piece.

In a season where the then 23-year-old scored 31 times for club and country, Bale had notched almost identical efforts against West Brom, West Ham and Southampton earlier in the campaign. Remarkably too – all four of those strikes were winning goals, and three of them were scored after the 86th minute.

But Bale’s heroics were not enough, as Arsenal clinched the final European place, meaning Tottenham wouldn’t be competing in the European Cup – but everyone knew Gareth Bale would be.

After scoring 21 league goals and winning a plethora of individual awards including the Premier League Player, PFA Young and Player’s Player of The Season – the super clubs began to circle.

Bayern Munich and Manchester United were linked – with David Moyes revealing in 2019 that the Red Devils had a helicopter ready for Bale to sign – but Real Madrid eventually won the summer long tug of war by signing him on September 1st 2013, in a deal worth a then World Record fee of £85.1 million.

There he was – smiling from ear-to-ear, posing with Madrid’s President Florentino Pérez in front of a collection of European Cups – a trophy not seen at the Bernabéu since 2002, but that was something Bale promised to change.

“I hope I can help to bring the team success, and hopefully this year we can win the 10th European title”, Bale said with excitement in his voice.

Winning ‘La Décima’ or ‘The Tenth’ had become an obsession for Pérez. Ten managers had failed to deliver it and whilst the beginning of his first ‘Galácticos’ era had generally proved successful, they could never provide what the eccentric Spaniard truly wanted – until Gareth arrived.

Now Pérez had the two most expensive footballers in the world in his front line, as Bale linked up alongside Cristiano Ronaldo, with Carlo Ancelotti – a man who had won two European Cups since Madrid last won one – at the helm. It had all fallen into place.

Bale enjoyed a promising if not particularly explosive first seven months in Madrid amid niggling injury problems, going into April with 19 goals. But the final two months of the season would live long in the memory.

Without an injured Ronaldo, Madrid lined up for a Copa del Rey Final showdown with Barcelona at the Mestalla – with Bale shouldering the Bernabéu burden as Los Blancos’ chief goal threat.

Goals from Ángel Di María and Marc Bartra meant the game was level heading into the final moments, the sort of time we saw Bale thrive in for Tottenham as he dragged his side through games – and that evening in Valencia was no exception.

Fábio Coentrão emerged with the ball deep inside Madrid’s half before playing it forward to the mercurial Welshman on the halfway line. He took one look at a helpless Bartra before knocking the ball forward and speeding past him, like the human equivalent of a Bugatti Veyron overtaking a learner driver in the bus lane.

Bale poked the ball past an onrushing José Pinto, ‘lighting up the Copa del Rey Final’ and putting Real’s arch rivals to the sword in the process. He had shown the world what he was capable of – but the best was still to come.

On May 24th, Madrid faced their city rivals Atlético in the Champions League Final – their first since 2002 – at the Estádio da Luz.

A pulsating game looked to be slipping away from Los Merengues with Ancelotti’s side a goal down, until Sergio Ramos headed in an equaliser in the third minute of added time, sending the match into extra time and crucially deflating Atléti.

Then, with just ten minutes of the season left, Di María forced a good save out of Thibaut Courtois, but Bale was there to pick up the pieces as he headed in at the far post – clinching La Décima for Florentino Pérez.

Within 39 days, Bale had scored two defining Cup Final goals – one more than Zinedine Zidane managed for the club and just one fewer than Ronaldo – whilst in turn fulfilling his promise of helping the Club to a trophy they had wanted so dearly for so long.

For any normal fanbase, at any normal club, these achievements would be enough to earn legendary, almost untouchable status. But that just never really happened for Bale.

His next 18 months were steady. By the time he left the field of play against Valencia on January 3rd 2016, he had just scored his 27th goal in that time frame and his 49th overall for Madrid – but the next day would change, and possibly define, his career forever.

Zinedine Zidane was appointed as Los Blancos’ manager, taking over from a faltering Rafael Benítez who, despite his shortcomings, had the backing of Bale who pleaded for him to keep his job.

But Benítez didn’t, and so began one of the strangest manager-player relationships of the modern era. Life under Zizou actually started well for Bale, scoring five in the Frenchman’s opening three matches including a third Real Madrid hat-trick against Deportivo in his opening fixture – his second in four games.

He then went on to notch a brace away at Rayo Vallecano, dragging his side back from two goals down in another virtuoso display in which Ronaldo didn’t feature – leaving Bale with a level of responsibility he very rarely ever passed up.

Zidane lost just two of his opening 27 games at the helm, with Bale scoring ten times in 16 appearances before another Champions League Final clash against Atlético Madrid.

He assisted Madrid’s opening goal, before eventually scoring in the penalty shootout to help secure a second European triumph in three seasons – equalling the record tally of European Cup victories for a Welsh player alongside Ryan Giggs, Ian Rush and Joey Jones.

The next year, Madrid stormed to a league and Champions League double, with Zidane becoming the first Madrid manager to win La Liga since José Mourinho in 2012, and the first to win the double since Luis Carniglia in 1958.

But Bale played just 27 times that season and scored only seven La Liga goals as injuries continued to plague the Welshman, with the most crucial of those coming in April’s El Clásico. He limped off with an ankle issue in the first half, before Lionel Messi went on to score a stunning 92nd minute winner for Barcelona before holding his shirt aloft on Madrid soil.

After the game, Zidane decided to ditch the 4-3-3 that had been in place since Bale’s arrival, opting for a diamond in midfield with Ronaldo and Karim Benzema up front.

Whilst this switch was both tactical and successful – with Madrid going on to clinch La Liga with six straight victories – it left no place for an injury ravaged Bale, whom Zidane was growing increasingly impatient with due to his unreliability.

Changing to a shape which ostracised the winger and describing him as a ‘soloist’ were both body blows by the manager – but the knockout punch was what hurt the Welshman most.

Bale’s home City of Cardiff played host to its first ever European Cup Final as Madrid played Juventus on June 3rd, but the now former most expensive player in the world played just 13 minutes as a substitute with the game already won at 3-1.

The victory meant ZIdane’s Real had become the first side to win back-to-back Champions League titles, but it appeared that whilst the Frenchman’s stock rose, Bale’s simultaneously plummeted.

The 17/18 season saw an improvement from Bale in terms of his goal scoring output as he bagged 16 times in the league, but he still only started 20 La Liga games as injuries and tactics continued to limit his availability.

The seismic push of Zidane seemed to leave Bale hurtling towards the exit door, but once again, like at the Mestalla, the Estádio da Luz, San Siro, White Hart Lane – Gareth Bale thrived on the biggest stage and saved his team when they needed it most.

Leading up to the 2018 Champions League final in Kiev against Liverpool, Bale had scored five in five games including one in El Clásico, but he still found himself on the bench for the second final in a row.

With the score deadlocked at one apiece, he entered the fray in the 61st minute.

Just moments later, Casemiro floated a ball over to Marcelo deep in Liverpool territory, with Ronaldo, Benzema and Bale to aim for as he cut inside onto his unfavoured right foot before lifting a hopeful cross towards the area.

Gareth Bale met it mid-air, twisting his body to connect with a sublime overhead kick, flashing the ball into the top corner of Loris Karius’ net. A jubilant Bale ran to the corner flag before being swarmed by fellow Galácticos, he was at the bottom of the ensuing piley on, but rest assured – he was on top of the world.

Zidane at Hampden Park? Marco Van Basten against the Soviet Union? Lionel Messi against Athletic Club? Carlos Alberto in 1970? Who’s to say what the greatest goal ever scored in a final is – but Gareth Bale’s is up there.

He went on to add a second and Madrid’s third as they once again lifted the European Cup – their fourth in five seasons – but after the game it seemed like this troubled marriage would finally end in divorce, amid all of the ticker tape and confetti.

“Obviously, I was very disappointed not to start the game – I felt like I deserved it”, he said post match, before going on to admit that he needs to be playing week in, week out and that his future would be discussed with his agent.

The writing appeared to be on the wall for Bale there, and whilst there were two huge departures from the club that Summer – he would once again stay put.

Just five days after lifting the Club’s 13th Champions League title, ZInedine Zidane departed, citing ‘degaste’, or ‘out of gas’ in English – the same term used by Pep Guardiola after he departed Barcelona in 2012.

Cristiano Ronaldo also moved on that July after nine trophy-laden years at the Bernabéu, with Real Madrid pinning their hopes on the now experienced Welshman and the emerging talent of Vinícius Júnior amongst others.

It appeared that Zidane’s exit had saved the forward’s career in the capital, but unfortunately for Bale, it was merely just an awkward ‘break’ phase.

He was handed more game time the following season under Julen Lopetegui and Santiago Solari, with the latter replacing the former in October 2018, playing 34 games by mid-March – his most by that stage since 2014/15.

But whilst Bale’s game time improved post-Zidane, results went in the opposite direction and just nine months after leaving, Zizou was back in the Madrid dugout on March 11th 2019.

The day of his return reportedly signalled the first time the pair had spoken since Zidane gave Bale his final instructions ahead of subbing him on in Kiev – staggering if true.

That summer, the exit door looked closer than ever, with Jiangsu Suning offering the forward an eye-watering £1,000,000-per-week deal to play in China. But Florentino Pérez put the brakes on the deal, believing Bale was too valuable a player to lose on the cheap despite Zidane admitting he ‘hoped’ the deal went through.

And so, that brings us to last season. Real Madrid went on to lift the 2019/20 La Liga title, but Bale featured just 16 times in the league and only ten times from the start.

Instead, he spent most of the season on the bench, especially after Christmas. Even in a season when the latest Galáctico, Eden Hazard, was ravaged by his own injury woes, Bale often found himself behind the likes of Vinícius or Isco in the pecking order.

This meant that during the tense, high stake games where Bale had so often saved Real, thriving on the pressure that only few can bear the weight of, he sat on the sidelines, pretending to fall asleep or look through some homemade binoculars – social media went wild, as Bale was branded as a joker, and not the elite footballer he once was.

Zidane even dropped him from the final match day squad of the season against Leganés, perhaps the most blatant display of them all that the Frenchman doesn’t need or want Bale.

So, what next for the 31-year-old? Well, he gave an interview to Sky Sports last week in which he stated that he is motivated and that he ‘wants to play football’, but finding a place to do that is going to be difficult.

At 31, Bale isn’t the same fresh faced superstar he was when he walked through the doors at the Bernabéu way back in 2013. A total of 23 different injury setbacks and over 430 days on the sidelines is hardly a promising investment for a club who are looking at a man past his best.

Oh, and the £600,000-per-week salary would be a stumbling block for a large majority of European clubs.

Clubs in America are typically signing younger ‘Designated Players’ in an attempt to get more value for money, whilst the Chinese Super League imposed a salary cap on the division last winter. This means players heading to MLS or the CSL for one final swan song could well become a thing of the past.

If he can convince a team to take a risk on him, then he would need a lot of luck, but if he can stay injury-free, there is no doubt he can once again be the jewel in almost any team’s crown.

Personally, I’m not sure. Originally, I was under the impression Bale’s contract was heading into its final year, meaning 2021 would spell the end of this topsy-turvy relationship. It would have been perfect for Bale to captain Wales to the Euros next summer, hanging up his boots after hopefully once again guiding the nation to a memorable summer.

Heading out of the game much like that of a certain Frenchman – it would have been the height of irony.

But the deal still has two years left to run, and I can’t see both Bale and Real sticking around for that time to find a solution. Whilst it’s clear Bale and his family are settled in Madrid, the weight of the city is clearly taking its toll and the longer it drags on, the worse the situation will get.

With any luck, he’ll get a fairy tale move back to Tottenham, or a somewhat belated switch to Manchester United, whilst Paris Saint-Germain and AC Milan are also reportedly interested. It’s a huge shame to see such talent rot away on what is becoming an increasingly infamous Madrid substitute bench, where the likes of Kaká, Nuri Şahin and James Rodríguez spent some of their best years.

To date, Gareth Bale has played over 250 games for Real Madrid, scored over 100 goals, won 13 trophies and scored in four finals. A man who turned up on the biggest stages, in the biggest matches, time after time for both club and country.

No matter how it ends, he should be remembered in Madrid as the ultimate ‘big game player’, and the most successful Brit abroad to ever grace the game.

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James Pendleton

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