The winger scored some of the most famous goals in Los Blancos’ history, yet has long been accused of putting Wales – and even golf – before the club
Four years on, it’s Real Madrid against Liverpool in the Champions League final again, but this time it seems nigh on impossible for Gareth Bale to come on and demolish Jurgen Klopp’s defense and bring his team the trophy they crave more than any other.
In the 2018 Kyiv final, with the score tied at 1-1, Zinedine Zidane turned to his bench.
Brought on for Isco in the 61st minute, Bale needed just two minutes to make his mark, scoring one of the greatest goals in the competition’s history with an outrageous overhead kick.
Bale wrapped up Madrid’s 3-1 win with a long-range effort which hapless Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius palmed into his own net, to seal Los Blancos’ 13th Champions League triumph.
It was the fourth time he had won the trophy with Madrid in five years, while he has also now won three La Liga titles.
Legend territory, but before the win over Liverpool where he was clearly the hero, the rot had begun to set in.
“I need to be playing week in, week out and that has not happened this season,” said Bale after the game.
Zidane was not fully convinced by the forward, who, even when fit, was not always his first-choice option.
Yet even if by comparison to the superhuman Cristiano Ronaldo he lacked some consistency, he was capable of pulling magical, decisive moments out of the bag.
Moments which seemed like they would cement legend status for Bale at Madrid, moments which should have.
Bale arrived from Tottenham for a world-record fee of €100 million (£86m/$107m) in 2013 and, in April 2014, he scored a brilliant solo goal against Barcelona in the Copa del Rey final, making his first season in the Spanish capital with an iconic strike.
Racing around Marc Bartra at warp speed, the Welshman’s pace and power left the Catalan for dead, and after sprinting 40 yards, he maintained his composure to prod home the late winner at the near post.
A month later, he played a crucial role in Madrid’s conquest of La Decima, their 10th Champions League win. After Sergio Ramos’s late header sent the final to extra-time, it was Bale who put Madrid ahead in the 110th minute and broke Atletico spirits.
In the 2016 final, Bale scored a penalty in the shoot-out to help Madrid beat their city rivals again, and while in 2017 he was not fit enough to start, he made an appearance from the bench in his native Cardiff.
In these moments alone are material enough to create an eternal figure at Madrid, even before taking into account his impressive overall statistics.
In total, he scored 106 goals – more than the original Ronaldo’s tally of 104 for the club. Bale has won 15 trophies – more than double of Zinedine Zidane’s six as a player.
Looking at the first six years of his time in Madrid, when Bale featured more regularly, he netted 78 goals and laid on 44 assists in 155 La Liga games.
If he had left at that point, in the summer of 2019 when he almost moved to the Chinese Super League, perhaps the majority would have let the negatives go, and appreciated him.
But the deal fell through, after a change of heart from president Florentino Perez, and when Bale leaves Madrid this summer, there will be a sizeable percentage of Madridistas who despise him and will be glad to see the back of him, epic moments be damned .
“What is important is that he has been part of the history of this club,” insisted Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti, but he is fighting against the tide.
“I think he remains in the memory of all Real Madrid fans. He is a player who has written great chapters in the history of this club and I think everyone recognizes that.”
Bale’s unwillingness to speak in Spanish publicly already did nothing for his cause, with fans unable to connect to him, to hear his words. In an age where football players seem increasingly detached, Bale was an extreme example.
And then came the outright disrespect.
In 2019, Bale celebrating Wales reaching Euro 2020 with the now-infamous banner reading “Wales. Golf. Madrid. In that order.”
In Spain, it was viewed as biting the hand that feeds, trampling over his history at the club and a middle finger to fans. For many, it stained his image forever.
Bale will argue that respect is a two-way street and actually the ‘Wales, golf, Madrid’ banners were inspired by former Real Madrid sporting director Pedja Mijatovic, who initially complained to Spanish radio that those were his priorities – and in that order.
While Bale ended up with a lot of bad luck with injuries at the club, and sometimes they were unfairly wielded against him, in recent months it feels more justified.
The excuses have worn too thin, particularly when contrasted against his performances for Wales.
The forward missed the 4-0 Clasico thrashing by Barcelona, even though Karim Benzema was out injured and he was in contention for a start.
Four days later, he started for Wales in a 2-1 win over Austria in a World Cup qualifier play-off semi-final, scoring two brilliant goals in Cardiff to take his team to the brink of the competition proper, for the first time since 1958.
This season he has one goal for Real Madrid in seven appearances and five goals in five games for his country. Some have accused him of effectively using Madrid as a training camp for Wales.
His readiness to play against Austria was the final of final straws for some, with Marca columnist Manuel Julia Dorado likening him to a parasite, his vicious prose accompanied by a cartoon image of Bale as an insect drawing blood from the Madrid badge.
“The Bale parasite came from cold and rainy Britannia,” he ranted. “He settled in Spain, at Real Madrid, where, disguised, he first showed diligence and love for the host.
“But then his nature led him to suck blood without giving anything in return. More than blood, he sucked, and sucks, the club’s euros up.”
So, despite Bale’s claim otherwise, it’s hard not to believe his pointed celebration, screaming “suck that” at a camera, was not directed to his critic.
And the lines in the sand were finally dug into full-out trenches when he did not attend the team’s La Liga title celebration.
Bale wrote on Twitter: “So disappointed that I’m not able to be part of the celebrations this evening due to a bad back spasm but really proud of the team for winning the title!”
It was an excuse that few believed.
Fans had jeered him when he made his first appearance at the Santiago Bernabeu in over two years as a substitute against Getafe in April and he had no interest in repeating the spectacle. It may also prove his last game for the club.
Regardless of the frustration Madrid supporters have with Bale, there are lines that should not be crossed.
Often it’s Spain’s radio and television personalities that go too far, and El Partidazo de Cope host Juanma Castano suggested Bale should be sent to the front line of the war in Ukraine but might pull out injured, among other jibes.
What comes next for Bale depends on Wales’s World Cup play-off against Ukraine or Scotland. If they don’t make it, retirement is an option – at least from elite football; there may be financial allure in the US.
“Gareth is leaving Real Madrid, but we have to wait for what Wales do,” his agent Jonathan Barnett explained to Record.
“It all depends on whether his national team qualifies for the World Cup, then we will make a decision, which may vary if Wales go to the World Cup or not.”
Bale and his camp are keeping their cards close to their chest but if Wales reach Qatar 2022 then a return to the United Kingdom next season is the most probable outcome, potentially on a short-term deal.
Cardiff City have been touted as an option as it would allow him to move back to Wales, while he looked revitalized on loan to former side Tottenham last season and they may be open to a return.
At either of those clubs, fans would receive him with the reverence that a legend deserves, a reverence which he stopped receiving in Madrid a long time ago.