Editor’s Note: A version of this article was published on March 25, 2022.
“Your celebrations on the goals were memorable. Were you sending a message?” was the first question of Gareth Bale’s post-match TV interview after his double strike for Wales in March’s 2-1 play-off win over Austria that left his country 90 minutes away from a first World Cup finals appearance since 1958.
“No,” replied Bale, but the smile all across his face suggested otherwise.
“I don’t need to send a message, honestly; it’s a waste of my time,” the Real Madrid player continued. “It’s disgusting and they should also be ashamed of themselves. end of.”
Bale was being asked about a Marca column, published on the morning of the game, which really did not deserve his attention.
“The Bale parasite comes from the cold and rains of Britain,” wrote Manuel Julia. “It settled in Spain, at Real Madrid, where, disguising its intentions, it first showed diligence and love for the grass, but soon its nature brought it to suck blood without giving anything in return.
“More than blood, it sucked, and sucked, the club’s euros.
“Unlike others of its species, like the flea, the louse, or the bedbug, the Bale parasite does not produce pain or sickness in its grass, but after sucking, between smiles and messing around, shows a tongue-in-cheek disrespect for that off which it lives.
“He laughs, claps, throws itself to the ground, sings, in a kind of humiliating ceremony, which, at least, finally comes to an end, like all misfortunes.”
Julia is a Real Madrid fan, but does not cover them day to day for Madrid-based Marca. He is a veteran columnist and contributor across Spanish media, and an award-winning poet and essayist.
The column was definitely not one of his better contributions to literature.
Exactly why Julia is so upset is not difficult to work out.
Everyone at Real Madrid was hurting following an embarrassing 4-0 Clasico defeat, at home, by Barcelona the previous weekend. And Bale has for some years now been the easiest target for Madrid fans — and pundits looking to shift blame and feel better about themselves.
There have always been some in Madrid who have questioned Bale, ever since his €101 million (£86 million) move from Tottenham in the summer of 2013. The size of the fee, and the injury issues with which he arrived, were useful ammunition for those who wanted to indirectly criticize club president Florentino Perez.
There were also many keen to defend the position of Cristiano Ronaldo as the team’s primary “galactico”, to whom no potential challengers were allowed.
These issues and debates were forced into the background as Bale’s first years at the Bernabeu were remarkably successful. His first season saw him score a memorable solo goal to beat Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final, then head the decisive goal as neighbors Atletico Madrid were defeated to win the club’s long-awaited “Decima” — a 10th European Cup.
Even when battling injuries, the Welshman often contributed at a very high level, with 19 goals and 11 assists in 23 La Liga appearances in 2015-16. He also made a vital contribution to that season’s Champions League final victory over Atletico, the first of that Madrid side’s three European titles in a row, despite his relationship with coach Zinedine Zidane not being the warmest.
Bale was never taken to the hearts of the Bernabeu in the way of team-mates Sergio Ramos or Luka Modric, the latter a fellow Spurs old boy, but that did not seem to bother him too much. He claimed not to know or care about his reputation with Spanish pundits.
When signing a six-year contract extension in October 2016, he was admitted to going through difficult moments in Spain, especially when injured, but was justifiably proud of having overcome challenges to succeed at what he kept calling “the biggest club in the world”. He regularly rejected opportunities to return to the Premier League, including when ignoring public appeals from then-Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho in the summer of 2017.
Bale’s last important contribution for Madrid were his two goals as a second-half substitute in the 2017-18 Champions League final win over Liverpool. By now his injury issues, stemming from a back problem but affecting other muscles throughout his body, meant he was just not physically able to maintain a high level through a full season. And the contrast between how Bale played for his club and how he was performing for his country became increasingly clear to those watching at the Bernabeu.
A key moment was former Madrid player and sporting director Predrag Mijatovic thinking up the now-famous ranking of Bale’s supposed priorities in the club v country debate. Bale embraced the idea, sharing a photo of him grinning behind a fan-designed Welsh flag emblazoned with the already infamous slogan “Wales. golf. Madrid. In that order” in November 2019.
That came after he had not featured at all for Madrid between that season’s October and November international breaks due to fitness problems, but was fit enough each time to play for Wales and help his homeland qualify for Euro 2020.
This was particularly annoying for the club paying his huge wages – around €30 million a year including taxes.
By this stage Perez’s support, through proxies in the local media, had been withdrawn. Bale was now regularly criticized for his lack of commitment to the Madrid cause, with his very public liking for a round of golf also somehow becoming a symbol for his perceived lack of respect for Spanish culture.
As Bale has not been spoken to the Spanish media since a few, fleeting, interviews in his early years at the Bernabeu, it has usually been left to his agent Jonathan Barnett to defend his client. “So-called ‘experts’ who make complete idiots of themselves when they come on TV to speak rubbish,” was a typically blunt reaction to criticism of Bale on football talk-show El Chiringuito in 2020.
Madrid had been open to offers for Bale since summer 2019, when Zidane publicly shoved him towards the exit, saying it would be “best for everyone” if he left “as soon as possible”. The issue was that nobody else were willing to pay the fee Madrid wanted, and especially, to keep paying Bale the huge salary he was on.
When a chance did appear to move to Chinese Super League side Jiangsu Suning in that 2019 window, Perez changed his mind at the last minute about allowing a free-transfer exit. When an escape was found a year later, taking Bale back to Tottenham on loan for the 2020-21 season, Madrid still paid the majority of his wages. It was worth it to them just to have him somewhere else.
On his return to the Bernabeu last summer, Bale was reunited with Carlo Ancelotti, who was his first coach at the club and had quit the Everton job for a second spell in charge.
The Italian was at first keen to see if he could re-motivate and re-energize the now 32-year-old, and picked him in the starting XI for the first three La Liga games of last season.
Then Bale went away with Wales at the start of September and scored a hat-trick in a 3-2 World Cup qualifying win away to Belarus — but returned to his club with a knee problem. He only got fit again in time to manage the first half for Wales when winning his 100th cap in a 5-1 win over the same opposition in November’s reverse fixture, which kept well alive the idea of ’Wales. golf. Madrid. In that order. Their subsequent qualification for the World Cup via this month’s play-off against Ukraine only intensified that feeling.
Although he has not had any serious injury issues since then, Bale only started once for Madrid last season after August – at Villarreal in early February. During 74 minutes on the pitch that day, he was more lively than many expected, and had more shots at goal (six) than passes completed (five). He did not manage to score though, and the game finished goalless. A few days later he had three minutes off the bench away to Paris Saint-Germain in the first leg of a Champions League last 16 tie. After that, there were just two short cameos from the bench at the start of April.
There was often uncertainty over whether the Welshman was actually injured, or whether Ancelotti just decided to use other players instead, as has happened with two other under-performing stars Eden Hazard and Isco, but sources have told The Athletic that he would have loved to have had a fully fit and firing Bale in his team.
A bout of COVID-19 and more niggles kept him sidelined at various times last season, while cameras catching him giggling on the bench as Madrid were knocked out of the Copa del Rey away to Athletic Bilbao only strengthened the views of Spanish fans and pundits that he just did not care about the team’s fortunes.
There was speculation ahead of March’s Clasico that Bale might replace injured centre-forward Karim Benzema. In the end, he was not even at the stadium for the game, with Ancelotti saying “he wasn’t up to playing” due to another niggle.
Remarkably, with the pandemic, the reconstruction work that had Madrid playing home games in a small stadium at their training ground and his season on loan at Spurs, more than two full years went by without Bale playing on the Bernabeu pitch — the wait ended with 16 minutes in the 2-0 win over Getafe on April 9 that turned out to be his final Madrid appearance.
Few in Madrid were surprised when Bale declared himself fit enough to start for Wales against Austria in March, having not been in the squad for the previous weekend’s Clasico defeat.
Although clearly not in his optimum physical shape, his influence on that game in Cardiff was phenomenal. Austria largely outplayed Wales and had arguably the better chances to score, but two pieces of exceptional individual brilliance from Bale were the difference.
The Spanish press reaction afterwards was no big shock, either.
“He has to be got rid of. Pay up his contract and get him out. He can’t be allowed to keep laughing at us like this,” was one comment during the typically blusterous Chiringuito debate that followed the Austria game.
“Bale — ‘get’ ‘out’ ‘now’ — in that order,” was the headline over “mad-madridista” Tomas Roncero’s column in AS, another Madrid-based paper, the next morning.
His club did at least mark the double strike with a tweet.
So Bale leaves with more Real Madrid goals to his name for the club than Brazil legend Ronaldo (106 to 104), more assists than David Beckham (67 to 51), more appearances than Luis Figo (258 to 245), more trophies, as a player, than Zidane (19 to six) and more Champions League trophies than Raul (five to three). But nobody will be sad to see him go, and, presumably, he will also be happy to leave it at that. Those 19 trophies over nine seasons on Madrid’s books give him a successful claim to being the most British player of his generation—or even of all time.
Some who know Bale well had wondered whether the end of his Madrid contract would bring his retirement, and the relief of no longer having to battle against his body every day at training. But Wales qualifying for just the second World Cup in their footballing history, after his free kick was inadvertently headed in by Ukraine captain Andriy Yarmolenko for the only goal of that play-off final three weeks ago, meant he would obviously play on somewhere once he turns 33 next month.
After talks with hometown club Cardiff City, of the second-tier Championship back in the UK, a deal has now been agreed for Bale to join Los Angeles-based MLS side LAFC ahead of the tournament in Qatar in November and December.
Around the Bernabeu, no one was sorry to see him go.
Except maybe the loudest, and most preposterous, pundits.
They are now going to need a new target.
(Top photo: Charlotte Wilson/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)