When Real Madrid face Liverpool in Saturday’s Champions League final, one potential match-winner will be conspicuous by his expected absence from the pitch.
Gareth Bale – the two-goal hero when the teams met in 2018’s final – has become a forgotten man, making only seven Real appearances all season and starting just one game in club colours since August.
Manager Carlo Ancelotti has declared Bale, 32, fit for the final after a back problem, but he has only played 22 minutes for the team since February and is extremely unlikely to feature.
With his contract at the Bernabeu expiring next month, his nine-year spell in Spain is limping to the quietest of endings, and it is fair to suggest his departure will come as a great relief to all parties.
For a player who has scored 106 goals and won 15 trophies in Spain to become arguably British football’s greatest ever export, it is a terribly sad way to finish – and even more of a shame because it all started so well.
When Bale was signed by Real for 100m euros from Tottenham in 2013, he immediately became a key component of a breathtakingly exciting forward line alongside Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Bale was quickly embraced by Real fans – especially when he concluded his first season by winning the Copa del Rey final against Barcelona with a stupendous solo goal, and then netted in the Champions League final against Atletico Madrid to help seal Real’s long-awaited tenth European crown.
But the first signs of trouble soon arrived. Early in 2015 Real suffered a bad run of form, including a 4-0 thrashing at Atletico and a 4-3 Champions League defeat by Schalke.
Some sections of the media made Bale the scapegoat for those poor results, lambasting him with criticism that seemed excessive and fostered a theory that their attacks on Bale were really an indirect way of getting at Real president Florentino Perez – theories they denied.
Bale appeared to be stung by the ferocity of the criticism, but since arriving in Spain he rarely connected with Real fans or the media, only conducting one heavily staged interview in Spanish and by all accounts living a sheltered life.
His perception was soon further damaged by a series of injuries which often cleared up just in time for him to go on international duty with Wales, provoking accusations that Bale’s club career had moved below playing for his country on his list of priorities.
Those factors combined to create a negative spiral in the relationships between Bale, the tabloid Spanish media, a section of Real fans and even the club itself. And with Bale generally quietly retreating into his small inner circle rather than trying to rescue his reputation, that situation of distrust was never escaped.
The mutual loathing between Bale and the Spanish media reached its low point in March, when sports newspaper Marca described Bale as a “parasite” after he missed the Clasico home loss to Barcelona, supposedly through injury, but promptly went away on international duty to start and score twice for Wales against Austria.
Although he has usually not responded to such criticism, on this occasion he bit back, tweeting his disgust by describing the attack as “slanderous, derogatory and speculative journalism,” and concluding: “We all know who the real parasite is!”
Bale was certainly not primarily responsible for instigating the spiral of negativity. The fact that he has never been accused of dressing-room dissent, despite his well-chronicled troubles, shows that he was not a troublemaker; but neither was he a peacemaker, instead preferring to remain aloof and alone. That means he will be remembered by Real fans with respect for the player he initially was, but also with scorn for the disinterested, peripheral presence he later became.
In the final analysis, the unhappy ending to Bale’s time at Real Madrid reflects badly on everybody: the club, which could have supported him much better and at times hung him out to dry; the media, which has often been excessive in its criticism; the fans, many of whom too easily swallowed the negative stories they were served and too quickly forgot his accomplishments.
And, it must be said, Bale himself, who struggled to engage as he was latterly portrayed in Spain – whether fairly or not – as the ultimate example of a modern mercenary footballer, disconnected from his community and only interested in picking up a bloated salary.
There is a common Spanish phrase to describe a glorious departure: ‘salir por la puerta grande’ – to go out through the main entrance. Brazilian left-back Marcelo, for example, is being accorded such a fond farewell as his contract with Real also draws to a conclusion, receiving a rousing ovation during his team’s final game of the season against Real Betis on Friday.
Bale, in contrast, was not even seen inside the stadium for that game and was recently dismissively described by Madrid-based sports newspaper AS as sneaking out of the club “through the cat flap”.
That is a fair description and, however you view the rights and wrongs of the breakdown in relationships, it is a sad way for such a wonderful player to leave a club where he achieved so much.