Gareth Bale and His Seven Complex Years in Madrid

On September 11, 2013, Real Madrid released a photograph that would send shockwaves through the footballing world. Gareth Bale, donning a gray cardigan and a freshly trimmed, slicked back haircut, shook hands with Cristiano Ronaldo in the car park outside Madrid’s training ground at Valdebebas. Bale had joined from Tottenham Hotspur for a then-world record transfer fee of €100.8 million, eclipsing the €94 million that Madrid had paid for Ronaldo in 2009. The message was simple: these two superstars were going to rule the world together.

Rule the world they did. In their half-decade together, Ronaldo and Bale combined to win four Champions League trophies and two domestic trophies. And yet, as Bale returns to Tottenham seven years after his record-breaking transfer, he leaves with an unusually bitter taste in the mouth for a player who has validated the hype, justified the outlay and proved his standing as one of the greatest footballers of his generation.

Bale arrived in the Spanish capital after a season that saw him win the PFA Players’ Player of the Year, the FWA Footballer of the Year and the PFA Young Player of the Year, making him the second Premier League player to claim the triple crown of individual awards after Ronaldo in 2007. Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez purchased the 24-year-old Welsh winger with the intention of him playing Robin to Ronaldo’s Batman, along with the desire for him to eventually replace Ronaldo as the club’s talisman.

After an injury-filled start to his time in Spain, Bale’s first major test came on October 26 when Madrid travelled to the Camp Nou to face Barcelona. The Welshman struggled in an unnatural central position, before manager Carlo Ancelotti shifted him back to the right side. He failed to make an impact, completing 15 out of 25 passes and earning a booking for a high challenge on Gerard Piqué before being subbed off in the 61st minute.

Nevertheless, Bale quickly began to turn things around, providing two goals and two assists in a 7-3 victory against Sevilla on October 30. Six months after his ill-fated Clásico debut, he reaped his revenge on the Blaugranas in the Copa del Rey Final. Receiving a pass from Luka Modrić on the halfway line, Bale pushed the ball past Marc Bartra, before stepping out of bounds, racing past the 23-year-old defender, and slotting the ball past José Manuel Pinto to seal his first ever club trophy at a senior level. It was a goal of the highest calibre, one that showcased technical prowess, God-given physical tools, and a killer instinct in front of goal.

Bale would go on to finish the season with 22 goals and 16 assists, with the most decisive goal of the bunch coming in the Champions League Final against Atlético Madrid. As Ángel Di María raced down the left flank and fired a shot at Thibaut Courtois, Bale rose above future teammate Toby Alderweireld to head home the go-ahead goal. Real Madrid claimed their 10th Champions League trophy, ending their 12-year wait for La Décima.

Bale began the next season in unstoppable form, continuing his impressive synergy with Ronaldo and Karim Benzema. However, after he sustained a back injury in training, Ancelotti tweaked his system to cope with the Welshman’s absence, switching to a 4-4-2 with James Rodríguez and Isco starting on the wings. Los Blancos found a better balance and played better football with Bale out of the line-up, winning all 12 games that he missed, compared to losing 10 out of the 30 matches he played in during the 2014/15 season.

The first signs of division between Bale and the Madrid fan base came on 10th January 2015 in a 3-0 victory against Espanyol. Bale set up the opening goal with a lovely cross-field switch to Ronaldo, before firing a free kick past Kiko Casilla. But, as he advanced down the right flank in the 73rd minute, he decided to take a shot rather than square it to the wide-open Ronaldo. His shot sailed wide of the target, triggering a chorus of boos from the Santiago Bernabéu faithful.

A month later, he was showered with criticism from the Spanish press for a perceived lazy and selfish performance in Real Madrid’s 4-0 defeat to crosstown rivals Atlético Madrid. The public hounding took a toll on his confidence and performances: Bale went eight games without registering a goal or assist, his worst drought since the 2010/11 season.

While Bale was enduring his horrendous run of form, he also saw to it that Ancelotti was forced to keep him in the starting line-up. In his 2016 autobiography ‘Quiet Leadership: Winning Hearts, Minds and Matches’, the Italian manager revealed, “In January, Bale’s agent had been saying things and perhaps felt his position was strong because he had already spoken with the president. Now he was telling the president that Bale was unhappy in his position. He wanted to play more centrally. One morning in March I received a phone call from the Madrid general director saying that the president wanted to speak with me at the end of training that day. This was very unusual. When I visited the president, he told me that Bale’s agent had been to his office to speak about the ‘Bale situation’.”

Ancelotti refused to revert back to the previously successful 4-4-2 or drop Bale from the line-up, and Madrid’s form suffered as a result. After a dismal performance in a 3-2 defeat to Barcelona on March 22, several Madrid supporters attacked Bale’s car, whilst others berated him with insults ranging from “asshole” and “son of a bitch” to “male prostitute”. Perhaps the most scathing remark came from MARCA, which reported, “It’s obvious Pérez has paid €100 million for someone worth €20 million. They’ve bought a car for the price of a bike.”

After sustaining a muscle tear in his calf against Málaga, Bale returned to the line-up in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final against Juventus. He put in another invisible performance as Madrid fell 2-1 to Massimiliano Allegri’s Juve, and was hauled off in the 86th minute for Jesé. Roy Keane laid into the Welsh forward, stating, “It’s very difficult to win a big game like this when you’re only playing with 10 men. Gareth Bale gave them absolutely nothing tonight.”

Madrid failed to win a major trophy in the 2014/15 season, causing Pérez to give Ancelotti his marching orders. He replaced him with Rafa Benítez, who played Bale in the central playmaker role during preseason. According to ABC, Benítez travelled to Cardiff during the summer to watch Bale play with Wales, and asked him where he’d like to play; Bale was clear: ‘media punta,’ or a central role just behind the main striker. However, just three weeks into the season, Bale suffered a calf injury against Shakhtar. He returned to the line-up a month later against Deportivo Alavés, but he lasted just 45 minutes before being taken with another injury in his left calf.

The Welshman made his return to the line-up on November 21 against Barcelona in his fifth Clásico and 100th match for Real Madrid. Playing in between Jesé and James Rodríguez in Benítez’s 4-2-3-1, he delivered another anonymous performance in a central role, leading many to question why the Colombian playmaker was pushed out wide to accommodate Bale. Madrid were humiliated 4-0 at the Bernabéu, yet Bale lasted the full 90 minutes. After the defeat, Benítez repositioned him on the wing, and then the goals followed: Bale scored 7 goals and 4 assists in his next seven matches, but a run of poor results for Los Blancos meant it wasn’t enough to save Benítez’s job.

Zinedine Zidane was appointed as manager on January 4 with the mission of saving a sinking ship. His first match in charge saw Bale net his second hat-trick of the season in a 5-0 thumping of Deportivo de La Coruña. A week later, he scored the opening goal in a 5-1 victory over Sporting Gijón, but he was taken off at halftime with yet another calf injury.

 It’s hard to pinpoint the source of Bale’s injury woes, especially when his only major spells on the sidelines prior to joining Madrid came in 2009 when he missed 38 days to a knee injury, and 2011 when he missed 59 days to a torn ankle ligament. Some have pointed to his expensive car habits — he stopped driving Lamborghinis in November 2015 as he believed their low-slung seats put too much of a strain on his hamstrings. Some have highlighted his passion for playing golf in his spare time as a cause of his back problems. Few, if any, have addressed the elephant in the room: his bodybuilding. 

Compare the picture of his medical in September 2013 to pictures of him in preseason a year later; he transformed from a lean, if not strong winger to a wrecking machine, biceps bulging out of his shirt, knees and quads resembling something closer to Kai Greene than Kai Havertz. It may have given him an ‘unstoppable aura,’ but building up so much muscle in such a short time created an imbalance in his muscle-to-weight ratio. As such, he became more susceptible to muscular injuries, causing him to gradually lose the explosive pace and finesse that made him so devastating in his earlier years. “When bodybuilding is poorly done, it can affect the intrinsic qualities of a player,” notes Djoumin Sangaré, a former player who now works as a physiotherapist.

The reasons behind Bale’s injury struggles are manifold, but by the time he was recovering from his umpteenth calf injury in the winter of 2016, Zidane would have taken notice not only of Bale’s worrying health patterns, but also of the influence he held when he went behind Ancelotti’s back to speak with Pérez about his playing situation. The Frenchman had served as Ancelotti’s assistant during the 2013/14 season, and unlike the current Everton manager, he had already built a remarkable legacy for himself as a player in Madrid, giving him a special kind of leverage rivaled only by the president himself.

Nevertheless, Bale returned to action in March and hit the ground running, coming off the bench and scoring the final goal in a 7-1 rout of Celta Vigo. He delivered his finest ever Clásico performance on April 2, setting up Ronaldo’s winning goal with a pinpoint cross in the 85th minute. Madrid’s late push wasn’t enough to pip Barcelona to the league title, but with Bale back in the line-up, Los Blancos defeated Roma, Wolfsburg and Manchester City to set up a date with Atlético Madrid in the Champions League Final. 

In a tense night at the San Siro, Bale delivered a performance worthy of his price tag, closing down opponents, creating havoc against Atlético’s low block, setting up Sergio Ramos’s opening goal with a flicked on header, and calmly slotting his penalty past Jan Oblak. As such, Real Madrid were able to win their 11th Champions League title, with Bale starring as the team’s leader in attack.

After leading Wales to the semi-finals of the 2016 Euros, Bale assumed the role of protagonist in attack, with Ronaldo struggling for top form following the knee injury he suffered in the Euros. He began the season in red-hot form, earning a new contract that tied him to the club through 2022, setting Bale up to rake in over £150 million over the next six years through salaries and bonuses. Three weeks after penning that extension, Bale suffered an ankle injury against Sporting that sidelined him for four months, his longest injury spell to date.

The Welshman returned on February 18 and once again proved his drive as he hit the ground running; making an incisive run through the heart of Espanyol’s recovering defense 12 minutes after being subbed on in order to latch onto Isco’s through pass, slotting the ball into the side-netting and sealing Real Madrid’s 2-0 victory. However, he struggled for consistency, scoring just one goal in his next 500 minutes of play. By the time he was brought off on April 12 due to another calf injury, he was increasingly becoming a peripheral figure in Madrid’s attack.

Bale managed to return for El Clásico on April 23, but he lasted just 35 minutes before being subbed off due to injury, which would see him sidelined until the Champions League Final. Never to mind—with Isco in world-class form and the likes of Marcos Asensio, Lucas Vázquez and Álvaro Morata delivering their own stellar performances—Real Madrid were playing better football when he wasn’t on the pitch. They won their first league title since 2012 and defeated Juventus in the Champions League Final in Cardiff. Bale came off the bench for a brief appearance in his hometown, making little impact if any.

There were strong rumors that linked him with a summer move to Manchester United, but after a 2-0 victory in the UEFA Super Cup against José Mourinho’s Red Devils, Pérez held his ground, stating, “I don’t contemplate selling Bale, he’s important for us and is one of the best in the world.” For the third consecutive season, Bale opened Madrid’s account in La Liga whilst also setting up Toni Kroos’s goal in a 3-0 victory over Deportivo de La Coruña. But then, a week later, he delivered an anonymous performance against Valencia that saw him showered with a chorus of boos on three separate occasions from the Bernabéu crowd.

For the most part, Bale struggled to recover the same form that saw him earn a blockbuster contract extension a year prior, but there were moments of individual brilliance that reminded fans and neutrals why they fell in love with him. Receiving a lofted pass from Dani Carvajal, Bale fired a volley past Borussia Dortmund goalkeeper Roman Bürki and into the top right corner to open the scoring on September 26. He later hobbled off the pitch in the 85th minute, however, with another calf muscle injury which would sideline him for the next two months.

Within a minute of returning to the pitch in November, he set up Borja Mayoral’s equaliser against Fuenlabrada with a pinpoint cross. A relatively brief two-week spell on the sidelines followed and, once again, he marked his return in fashion, scoring the go-ahead goal against Al-Jazira with his first touch to seal a spot in the Club World Cup Final.

2018 began on the right track for Bale, scoring five goals in his first five games. However, when Real Madrid faced Paris Saint-Germain in the first leg of their Round of 16 Champions League tie, Bale found himself on the bench. A month later, he was benched in the second leg in Paris, and when the rest of the team went to the away stand at the Parc de Princes to celebrate their triumph with the travelling support, he headed towards the locker room with his head down.

Each week, there seemed to be a new story from a Spanish outlet analyzing Bale’s behavior on and off the pitch. Why does he triumphantly celebrate goals with Wales but not with Real Madrid? Why does he play so much golf? Why hasn’t he learned Spanish in his four-and-a-half years at the club?

But despite the persistent media scrutiny and Ernesto Valverde’s Barcelona sealing a domestic double with Zidane’s side lagging 17 points behind in La Liga, Real Madrid advanced past the champions of France, Italy and Germany en route to their fourth Champions League Final in five years. And yet, once again, Bale found himself on the bench. It should be noted that the only European knockout match he started in the 2017/18 season saw Madrid lose 3-1 to Juventus at the Bernabéu.

Benzema opened the scoring in the 51st minute, capitalising on a jaw-dropping error from Loris Karius. Just four minutes later, Sadio Mané evened the scoreline in Kiev, tapping in a knockdown header from Dejan Lovren. Zidane subbed on Bale for Isco, and once again, he didn’t take long to make his presence known. Latching onto a cross from Marcelo, Bale scored perhaps the greatest goal in Champions League history, firing a bicycle kick past Karius. In the 83rd minute, he stalked his prey again like a sniper eyeing up a gazelle, and fired a rocket of a long shot past the hapless German goalkeeper. 

Rather than celebrate his team’s historic three-peat in the post-match interview, Bale sought to make his discontent publicly known: “I need to be playing week in, week out, and that has not happened this season. I had an injury five, six weeks in but fit ever since. I have to sit down with my agent in the summer and discuss it. I feel that I need to be playing every week. If it’s not the case here, then it’s something I have to really consider and sit down and do.”

Five days after the Final, Zidane announced his resignation, citing the club’s “need for change.” Diego Torres of El País claims that he left Madrid due to a broken promise. According to Torres, Pérez had promised Zidane in January 2018 that he would sell Bale in the summer for €100 million and reinforce the attack with a new Galáctico – Mohammed Salah, Harry Kane, Neymar and Eden Hazard being named as potential options. However, after Bale’s post-match comments in Kiev, the president spoke to Bale privately and told him to stay put in Madrid, promising him an important role in the team next season. Zidane, supposedly offended at Pérez for going behind his back and changing the plans, stepped down from his position.

Bale began his time with new manager Julen Lopetegui on the right track, with four goals and three assists in his first five matches. His first major test as the team’s protagonist in the absence of Ronaldo, who had since departed to Juventus in the summer for €100 million, came on September 29 in the Madrid derby. He lasted just 45 minutes before being hauled off due to a right abductor injury.

He registered just one league goal over the next two months as Real Madrid lost to Deportivo Alavés, Levante and Eibar, falling to 9th place after a 5-1 defeat to Barcelona which resulted in Lopetegui’s dismissal after just two months in charge. Eleven minutes into the Clásico, Bale neglected to track the onrushing Jordi Alba, who was making a run in behind Madrid’s defence. Whilst the rest of his teammates were frantically tracking back, Bale barely broke a sweat, motioning Nacho to follow Alba’s run instead. Alba took just two touches before teeing up Philippe Coutinho’s opening goal.

Little changed with the arrival of Santiago Solari as manager. While he kept his place in the starting line-up in the first two months under the Argentine, Bale injured his calf in a 2-2 draw against Villarreal on January 3, prompting AS to dub him Mister Cristal (Mr. Glass) across their entire front page: 22 injuries, 84 matches missed because of them.

For the first time in his Madrid career, Bale found himself as a regular benchwarmer. When Solari subbed him on for an injured Lucas Vázquez in the 29th minute of the second leg of their Round of 16 tie against Ajax, the Bernabéu crowd greeted him with a chorus of boos. Madrid were outplayed, outfought, and eliminated in their own backyard, and Solari was immediately dismissed. Nine months after his departure, Zidane returned, and with a lot more leverage this time around.

Bale struggled to make an impact in the final months of the fateful season, his final appearance coming on April 28 in a 0-1 loss to Rayo Vallecano. This time, it wasn’t an injury that kept him out of the matchday squads, but Zidane’s will. Thus began a tiresome war of words between Bale, Zidane, and the Welshman’s agent Jonathan Barnett. After leaving him out of the squad for the final home match of the season in a 0-2 defeat to Real Betis, Zidane said, “I have to look at the day-to-day, and make decisions. And when there is something I do not like, or does not fit for me, I must do what I think best. We cannot forget all he has done here, but I must live in the present, think of the future.”

Barnett, for his part, claimed that Bale was happy in Concha Espina, saying, “Bale has no intention of leaving Real Madrid. He has a contract until 2022.” After leaving him out of the squad for Madrid’s first preseason match on July 21, a 3-1 defeat to Bayern Munich, Zidane claimed, “We hope he leaves soon. It would be best for everyone. We are working on his transfer to a new team.” But just when Bale looked set to join Chinese Super League side Jiangsu Suning on a three-year deal, Pérez blocked the move, demanding that the Chinese Super League side pay a transfer fee in order to sign him on a permanent deal. Bale stayed put, reportedly disappointed with his failed transfer but surely comforted by the fact that he would continue to earn his £600k-a-week salary.

His minutes were limited even further the following season, and by the time he was sidelined due to another calf injury in October, he had registered just two goals and two assists for Real Madrid. He returned to action a month later, setting up the opening goal in a 2-0 win against Hungary as Wales qualified for the Euros. Following the triumph, Bale and his international teammates unfurled a Wales flag that read, “Wales. Golf. Madrid. In That Order.”

On November 23 – nearly three years after Pérez made him the highest-paid footballer in the world – Bale was greeted with whistles from the home support when he was subbed on for Rodrygo against Real Sociedad. The Bernabéu crowd whistled his every touch, although it didn’t seem to faze him; Bale set up the third and final goal with an excellent cross to Benzema, who knocked it down for Modrić to convert.

Bale finished the 2019/20 season with a combined total of eight goals and assists in all competitions — three of those coming on international duty with Wales. With Real Madrid’s finances suffering a massive blow due to the coronavirus pandemic, they had no choice but to offload him, sending him back to Tottenham Hotspur on loan where he will finally link up with Mourinho. 14 months after refusing to permanently offload Bale to Jiangsu Suning without receiving a transfer fee, Pérez will foot the bill for 60% of Bale’s wages during his loan spell.

It remains to be seen how Bale will do in his return to Tottenham. He will be sidelined until the middle of this month due to a knee injury, and there is a chance that he could suffer a similar fate to that of Radamel Falcao during his lone, injury-filled season in London. Tottenham could reject the chance to sign him outright, causing Madrid to cough up his wages for the final year of his contract. If they do decide to take him on a permanent transfer at the end of the season, it would most likely be on a free transfer, similarly to Everton’s signing of James Rodríguez or Inter’s signing of Alexis Sánchez.

One thing is for certain, though: the Cardiff Express has run its final course in Madrid.

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