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Zinedine Zidane had made up his mind. Having returned for a second spell as Real Madrid manager a few months earlier, the Frenchman was assessing his squad in the summer of 2019 ahead of the season ahead. His conclusion was that there was no space in it for Gareth Bale, then the most expensive signing in the history of the club.
Bale was left out because the club are trying to sell him, Zidane told the media after a friendly against Bayern Munich in July of last year. If he can go tomorrow, it would be better. It’s nothing personal, I don’t have anything against Bale, but I have to make decisions. There comes a time when it’s time to change and it’s good for everyone to go their separate ways. Leaving is the decision of the coach, and also the player, who knows the situation.
Fourteen months on and Bale remain in the Spanish capital. For Zidane and Madrid, tomorrow never came. It almost did, though. Towards the end of the 2019 transfer window, Chinese Super League Jiangsu Suning was closing in on the signing of the Wales international, with Madrid agreeing to forego a transfer fee in order to get his hefty wages off the books. Bale was on board with the proposal, having been offered a deal that would have seen him earn an astonishing $1.3 million per week over in China.
However, Madrid pulled the plug on the deal at the last minute. Zidane was happy to see him depart, but president Florentino Perez overruled the manager and decided not to sanction Bale’s departure without a transfer fee. As such, the former Tottenham Hotspur winger remained at the Santiago Bernabeu last season, playing a limited role as Madrid won only their third La Liga title since 2008.
Given the fact he made just 14 starts in all competitions last term, you might expect that Bale has been agitating for a move away. Not quite. There have been a few fanciful links with Tottenham and Manchester United, but nothing of substance with just a few weeks of the window remaining. Bale earns £350,000 a week from his salary in Spain, and very few clubs in the world are willing or able to match those demands. As such, another season on the sidelines beckons for a player who will turn 32 next July.
That is a shame. Bale, by any measure, has had a fantastic career. After establishing himself as the best player in the Premier League in 2012/13, the forward moved to Madrid for £85 million that summer – a world-record fee at the time. During his seven years at the club, he has won two La Liga titles, a Copa del Rey, and four Champions Leagues. Remarkably, only 11 players in the history of the game have won Europe’s premier club competition more often than Bale.
Yet it has been far from smooth sailing during those seven years. Bale has, for the most part, struggled to win over the club’s famously demanding supporters. His Madrid career has frequently been disrupted by injury. He found it difficult to escape from Cristiano Ronaldo’s shadow during the Portuguese’s time in Madrid, and he has always seemed distant from most of his team-mates. Bale is nicknamed ‘The Golfer’ in the Bernabeu dressing room due to his obsession with the sport, although Luka Modric and others have dismissed reports that his Spanish is poor.
Nevertheless, Bale does not give the impression of someone who is a fully integrated part of the Madrid squad, which is perhaps part of the reason why Zidane has never really taken to him. With Eden Hazard hoping to put his fitness troubles behind him, and Vinicius Junior and Rodrygo another year older and more experienced, game time could be even harder to come by for Bale in 2020/21 than it was in 2019/20. Madrid are favorites to retain the La Liga title (-155 with DraftKings Sportsbook) and Zidane will probably stick with his tried and trusted for the season ahead.
Bale hit out at Madrid in an interview while on international duty last week, claiming the club prevented him from sealing a return to the Premier League in 2019.
I tried to leave last year but they blocked everything at the last second, Bale told Sky Sports. It was a project I was excited for last year but it didn’t materialize. And there have been other instances but the club won’t allow it or something, so it’s up to the club. I want to play football. I’m still motivated to play football. I’m 31 but I’m in great shape still and I feel I’ve got a lot to give. We’ll see what happens. It’s in the club’s hands and they make things very difficult to be honest.
Bale is certainly right to say that Madrid is in control of the situation. Perez’s intervention last summer scuppered the switch to the Chinese Super League, and the Welshman could do nothing about it. It is easy to see why any player would be frustrated by such a dramatic U-turn at the eleventh hour.
Even so, it is hard to shake the suspicion that Bale could have pushed harder for a move, either by handing in an official transfer request or making it known that he would be willing to take a pay cut elsewhere. His actions over the last couple of years do not point to a player who is desperate to move on in search of more regular game time. Bale, conversely, appears pretty content to sit on the bench (at best) and collect his wages.
Perhaps that is unfair; it is impossible to know what goes on behind closed doors and Bale is not in a position to unilaterally force an exit. But the forward only has a few more years of his career left and it is to be hoped that he does not one day regret not pushing harder for a move away.
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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