As part of Florentino Perez’s ongoing obsession with buying the best players in the world, and assembling a super team of Galacticos, Gareth Bale, at his signing in 2013, joined the likes of Kaka, Angel Di Maria and, most obviously, Cristiano Ronaldo at the Bernabeu in the hunt for a La Liga title which they had only won once since 2008.
The Champions League had also eluded los Merengues, despite having been semi-finalists during the three previous years.
Perhaps unfairly, the Cardiff-born winger was also earmarked as Cristiano Ronaldos’ natural successor because of his dangerous change of pace, aerial threat, devastating left-foot, attacking leadership and goalscoring ability — evidenced from his time at both Tottenham and Wales.
All of these qualities were enough to convince Perez in spending circa £90 million for the Welshman’s services, a world record at the time.
“I just want to say that it is amazing to be here… It’s a dream and I hope we can bring the 10th European Cup to the club,” Bale stated at his unveiling.
And yet, having left Real Madrid on loan for Tottenham Hotspur a few weeks ago, his career at Madrid, despite all the successes, has finished on an underwhelming and sombre note.
Football fans in Wales — and more broadly around the UK — tend to say Bale was never fully appreciated in Spain and that his fall from grace is completely Zinedine Zidane and Madrid’s fault.
People in Spain argue, without per se doubting his football ability, that his injuries, and later on his increasingly difficult attitude, are what made his future at Madrid untenable.
As a Welshman whose Spanish family supports Real Madrid, it seems that both views are too simplistic.
The reality is that Bale achieved more for Madrid than his dectractors (mainly Spanish journalists and some section of the fanbase) would care to admit.
However, Bale also had his injuries, and his attitude towards the end cannot be forgotten or perhaps even forgiven.
2013–2016: The early years and Champions League success
Bale’s arrival did indeed come to be a vital turning point for the Madrid side, at least in the cup competitions.
Although, as aforementioned, they had been Champions League semi-finalists during the previous three seasons, Los Blancos had not won the competition since 2002. Even more bizarrely, they had only won one Copa del Rey since 1993.
Whilst the 2013/14 season may be remembered more for Atletico Madrid’s spirited and combative La Liga title, Real Madrid, thanks to significant contributions from Gareth Bale, however, would win both of the cup competitions that had eluded them for so long.
At 1–0 down against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League, without Sergio Ramos’ injury time equaliser, Carlo Ancelotti’s side would not have gone on to win La Decima, their 10th European Cup.
Gareth Bale’s header to take the lead in extra time was, nonetheless, equally as important to the victory.
After Bale’s header turned the tie in Madrid’s favour, Atletico’s legs tired and Real would go on to win 4–1.
Just a few weeks previously, in the last 10 minutes of the Copa del Rey Final vs arch-rivals Barcelona, Bale received the ball in his own half, sprinting past a hapless marc Bartra, before tucking the ball neatly under the legs of goalkeeper Pinto.
The first season at Madrid for Bale thus read as follows: 1 Champions League win, 1 Copa del Rey, 22 goals and 19 assists.
Despite the second season being a relatively good one individually for Bale, with 17 goals and 12 assists, it was considered a year of failure for Florentino Perez.
Losing in the Copa del Rey at the round of 16 stage against Atletico Madrid, thanks no less to a double from the returning Fernando Torres in the second leg; a 2–3 aggregate defeat against Juventus in the Champions League Semi-Finals and finishing second in La Liga were all enough for Ancelotti to get the sack.
Such are the high and consistent demands at Real Madrid, something Bale was himself to find out in due course.
Thanks to a lacklustre start to the 2015/16 campaign, Rafael Benitez, Carlo Ancelotti’s replacement, would be sacked in January.
His replacement? Zinedine Zidane, which was to have both positive and negative ramifications for the Welshman going forward.
Despite the inconsistent start to the campaign, the Frenchman’s spell from January to May made him an inspired choice leading Madrid to finish just one point behind Barcelona and win the Champions League on penalties against Atletico Madrid.
Bale, for his efforts, scored 19, assisted 15 and converted one important penalty in the final.
The best was yet to come.
The highs of Euro 2016
In 2016 Bale’s stock was at its high point, with the upcoming European Championships proving this emphatically.
Wales had not qualified for a national tournament since 1958 but had, thanks to Bale and co finally managed to do so for France 2016.
Whilst the likes of Aaron Ramsey, Joe Allen and Ashley Williams were key members of the team, Bale was the fundamental player. He was their matchwinner, their one global star.
Having been drawn against England in the group stage, the championships were always going to be a tasty affair.
After a 2–1 opening win against Slovakia, Bale’s stunning free-kick saw Wales take the lead against Roy Hodgson’s men, although England would win the tie 2–1.
Wales would defeat Russia 3–0 against Russia in the last match, meaning that Chris Coleman’s side would top the group.
Bale scored in all 3 matches.
Despite Bale not finding the back of the net again, Wales would end up reaching the semi-final stage where they were knocked out against Portugal, the eventual winners of the tournament, after Wales’ historic and sublime 3–1 win against the mighty Belgium.
2016–17: The insurmountable double
In spite of having won the Champions League a record 10 times, Real Madrid had never won it and La Liga in the same season.
2016/17 was to be the first time for this as Zidane’s reign reached its zenith.
On a personal level, it was to be a very special year for Cardiff-born Bale, as the Champions League Final was to be held in the city’s Principality Stadium.
Yet, throughout the campaign Bale only managed 9 goals and his calf injury meant he only played the last quarter of an hour of the final, with Madrid already 3–1 up at this stage.
Having started just 17 league games, his third season was, despite the unprecedented success that the club was achieving, the first time that rumours began to circulate over his long-term future at the club.
2017–2018: Despite his injuries, Bale turns up for the big occasions. His last great season at the club?
Though he still suffered with various injuries, his fourth season was to be his last great “goalscoring” campaign, as he managed to find the back of the net 21 times.
2 of those goals, I had the pleasure of witnessing live in Vigo, as Madrid drew 2–2 against Celta whilst I was on my year abroad in January 2017.
Crucially, was his ability to score vital goals, goals that mattered, such as his brace against Liverpool in Real Madrid’s third successive Champions League victory, including this stunning overhead kick.
However, after that match, Bale dropped a bombshell on the club.
The fans, after this declaration, started to turn en masse against the Welshman, and it seemed that his days at the Bernabeu were indeed numbered.
2018–2019: Cristiano Ronaldo leaves for Juventus and it all starts to go wrong for Madrid.
Whilst Gareth Bale was earmarked as Ronaldo’s potential heir, he managed just 14 in the first season without him.
Knocked out by Ajax in the Champions League at the round of 16 stage and losing to Barcelona in the Copa del Rey Semi-Finals did not help the cause.
But it was in La Liga where Madrid’s problems were manifested most clearly: losing 12 matches and finishing in 3rd place, 19 points behind Barcelona, Bale was one of the biggest scapegoats of the campaign.
Despite his average performances and several injuries, Bale was certainly not the only reason why Madrid had a poor season.
Julen Lopetegui, after the World Cup controversy, was appointed and sacked; so was Santiago Solari, with Zinedine Zidane returning to the hotseat he had left the previous season.
Madrid were always going to have difficulties in replacing Ronaldo and, as it was known that Bale was not happy with his game-time, he was a scapegoat.
2019–2020: Failed move to China and the frustrating lockdown period despite the league title.
Despite Zidane guiding Madrid to only their 3rd La Liga title since 2008, Bale played little part in the campaign.
In January 2020, with the European Championships in the summer and amassing little game time, even being left out of the matchday squad when fully fit, Bale was on the verge of signing on loan for a club in China, a move that never materialised.
Having fallen out with Zidane, Bale needed to play week in week out. Yet he wasn’t.
After the coronavirus pandemic enforced lockdown, Madrid were unbeaten in 11 La Liga matches and would win the league; it was at this point that Bale seemed closer and closer to the exit door.
‘A guide on how not to win over unconvinced fans’ by Gareth Bale.
An inventive use of the face mask while watching from the stands as Real Madrid beat Alavés.
— La Liga Lowdown 🧡🇪🇸⚽️ (@LaLigaLowdown) July 11, 2020
Wales, Golf, Madrid?
One of the main criticisms charged at Bale over the last few years has been his attitude. The disrespect to the club by wearing his mask over his head, playing an awful amount of golf instead of travelling with the squad. Not bothering to learn any Spanish.
In June’s 3–1 win over Eibar, Bale came off the bench. He did not sprint for the ball, he just walked around on the pitch for half an hour.
I love him, but Gareth Bale was woeful when he came on. Basically spent 30 minutes walking around on the pitch. Definitely time for him to leave, shouldn’t play another match this season. The apathy is clearly mutual between Bale and Madrid.
— James Francisco Felton (@james_felton1) June 14, 2020
The only mention of Bale on the pitch by the BBC live match report was this one:
Could he have helped his injuries? No. Could he help it if he had fallen out with the manager? No. But he could have helped his attitude. For a club like Real Madrid, who expect the best at all times, that is not tolerated.
He, at the very least, should have done better in this respect.
The Issues of language
Another of the biggest criticisms levelled at Bale is the fact that he never really showed any desire to learn any Spanish. Other Brits such as Gary Lineker, Steve Mcmanaman and Toni Duggan did; Lineker and Mcmanaman achieved fluency whilst Duggan, in her third season in Spain, is still learning.
Overall record at the club:
Goals: 105 (15th highest of all time, 1 more than the Brazilian Ronaldo and 5 more than Fernando Morientes)
Trophies: 4 Champions League Titles, 2 La Liga Championships, 1 Copa del Rey, 4 World Club Cup, 3 Uefa Super Cup and 1 Spanish Super Cup.
Main Criticisms: Injuries, bad attitude towards the end and didn’t learn the language.
Verdict: How will he be remembered?
That Gareth Bale is a divisive figure for the Real Madrid fanbase is doubtless.
That he contributed in important — and sometimes match-winning — ways in Madrid’s 4 Champions League titles during his time at the club is vital to note.
His goal against Atletico Madrid in 2014 to take the 2–1 lead in extra time, his stunning overhead kick against Liverpool and subsequent long-range effort in the same game meant he also played an indispensable part of the 2018 Champions League Final.
His run from inside Madrid’s half to win the 2014 Copa del Rey Final against Barcelona, as well as the 105 goals he scored in all competitions across his 7 seasons means he should forever have a place in the Hall of Fame.
However, for the fans, playing for Real Madrid is not just about scoring goals, it is about representing the most successful club in European football. And Bale’s apathy towards the end of his time won’t be forgiven by some of them.
Neither did he win all of the trophies by himself; for all the Champions League wins Cristiano Ronaldo was in the squad, as well as a host of other world-class players.
In the end, Bale’s time at Madrid heralded an unprecedented success at the club. But his reputation has been tarnished due to his apathy.
Bale, at his unveiling, said he wanted to win the 10th European Cup. He ended up winning the 10th, 11th, 12th and 13th.
Not bad, even for a Welshman.