Gareth Bale’s announcement on Tuesday that he would like to return to Real Madrid after his loan period expires can, like most of his career, be read in two ways. (His agent Jonathan Barnett told ESPN that Bale’s comments to the media were “completely out of context.” Out of context? You decide. Either way, his loan will expire at the end of the season and decisions need to be made.)
On a granular, practical level, it was a tactical, logical thing for him to say – a natural next step. On a broader, metaphysical level, it fits in with the last 15 years of his career: ghosting, brilliant, weak, fleeting, the eeriness of the reluctant superstar with his size.
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Actually, this animation The legendary Champions League hat-trick against defending champions Inter Milan in 2011 is a convenient metaphor for his big European moment. It’s fascinating and intoxicating, right up to the creepy music, but also ethereal and makes you want more. And when you check the result, you find that despite the brilliance of the hat trick, two goals were scored in the garbage time Spurs lost the game 4-3.
“The main reason I came to Spurs this year was because I wanted to play football first and foremost, but at Euro 2020 I wanted to be fit,” said Bale on Tuesday. “The original plan was to only play one season at Spurs and after the Euros I have another year at Real Madrid. My plan is obviously to go back and that is as far as I planned.”
There is a way to read this from a purely tactical point of view. By going public, Bale is leveraging Real Madrid and should Tottenham want to keep him – that part remains to be seen and will depend on a lot of things – they get a bit of leverage too.
Bale is entering the final season of his multi-year deal with Real Madrid. This contract costs the club around 60 million euros per season, making it one of the five highest-paid players in the world. If the best skill is availability (as the cliché goes) that deal soon turned into a millstone around the club’s neck, with Bale starting just 60 of Real Madrid’s next 142 league games.
Part of that was injuries, an old Bugaboo – he’s only started more than 21 league games in a campaign since he was 25 – and part of that was a deteriorating relationship with Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane and the Madrid media. It certainly wasn’t all bad: in 2017-18 he scored 21 goals in all competitions, including two that went off the bench in the Champions League final win over Liverpool. However, Real Madrid had tried to move him (unsuccessfully) since the spring of 2019 as his exorbitant salary, age, injuries and refusal to restructure his contract were a combination.
In the summer of 2020, they were finally able to persuade him to return to Spurs on loan, with his old club covering an unknown portion of his salary – between a third and half, depending on who you speak to.
It’s pretty obvious that Real Madrid don’t want him back. They’d love to let him run for free when his contract expires, or even, as they did, subsidize his salary to borrow him elsewhere until his contract expires. This was the case before the pandemic, and even more so when the club experienced a massive loss of revenue and Bale became a free agent in the summer of 2022.
Stating that he wants to return, he sends an obvious message: “I will come back as it is my right and you must make sure I get paid to my last penny, whether you write the check or someone else. “
Real Madrid’s best-case scenario involved Bale making a triumphant return to Spurs, having a monster season and agreeing to stay in North London on the signing of a multi-year deal. He should have made one pay cut per season, but he would have made up for it in terms of the length of his business. That is out of the question, but it is unlikely, hence his public statement.
Even if Tottenham only paid him a third of his Madrid package, he would still be the club’s second highest earner. And yet he has only started six league games, fell off the bench in another six and scored five goals. He had been a regular in the Europa League but had only made the submarine bench in the last three games, including being eliminated by Dinamo Zagreb earlier this month. Perhaps the most telling number in terms of his durability is that he has only played 90 minutes at club level once in the past 14 months. For what Spurs pay, expect a higher return.
Bale has shown that he still has it in the last few games against Burnley and Crystal Palace. but he would still be a huge commitment for Spurs. And given the media speculation about his relationship with Jose Mourinho, the club unsure if they will have Champions League football (and Champions League revenue) next season, and the impact of the global pandemic, this is not one Commitment that he can make now.
But the hell we have two months of the season plus the euros ahead of us. Finish on a high level, prove your durability, repeat it on the big stage, and who knows? Maybe Spurs will want to keep him, maybe someone else will throw the dice at him and maybe – if he’s serious about threatening to return to the Bernabeu – Madrid will make someone a treasure deal to take him away.
Some will view Tuesday’s remarks as selfish, but Bale’s job is to do what he thinks is best for Bale. There’s nothing wrong with that. For the neutrals, however, there remains a feeling of melancholy.
This is one of the most incredibly talented players Britain has ever produced, a guy who should be in the conversation with John Charles, Ian Rush and Ryan Giggs as the greatest player Wales ever produced. A guy who held the unofficial title of Most Expensive Player in the World for four years. A man with four Champions League trophies is hiding at home. And yet a guy who leaves you wonders what could have been.
Injuries are, of course, a massive part of it – probably the largest part. But there’s also a basic sense of separation, a guy who so often felt out of place. From the start of his Tottenham career when he was haunted by one of those quirky (and by and large irrelevant) little things, Spurs couldn’t win any of the first 25 games he appeared in, which made him seem like some kind of curse – until to the final years of Madrid, where he felt like a foreign body despite his talent: mocked for his obsession with golf, occasionally booed by his own fans, and mocked for his limited Spanish.
There is no point in assigning blame. There is only regret.
Individually, you can quote his performances in the Champions League final, his outstanding performances during the Wales semi-finals at Euro 2016 or the 26 goals he scored for Spurs in his last season if it always felt like his long If the leg was rounded up to shoot, something spectacular was going to happen.
But perhaps the ghostly hat-trick against Inter remains the most appropriate metaphor, especially how it’s portrayed in the animation. So beautiful. So fascinating. So dreamy. So unnaturally perfect. And so far less relevant than promised.