What now for Gareth Bale?
The substitution of the Real Madrid winger during Saturday’s Clasico defeat to Barcelona had an air of finality, as though he has now stepped across the point of no return from which there is no coming back.
It’s not just that Bale headed into the game amid a swirl of criticism and then failed to perform. It’s not that he has clearly now slipped down manager Santiago Solari’s pecking order. And it’s not even that he is very much in the bad books of his team’s fans, who sent him to the sidelines with a monumental expression of dissatisfaction on Saturday night.
All those things, especially at a club like Real Madrid, are potentially recoverable. Even the greatest of greats have been sent home with their tails between their legs from time to time at the Bernabeu – from Alfredo Di Stefano to Zinedine Zidane to Cristiano Ronaldo, nobody has been spared the wrath of the Blancos booboys in times of strife. And all of them eventually bounced back.
No. The worst thing about Bale’s situation is not that he is currently in a bad place, which could quickly be dispelled by a match-winning masterpiece or two.
It’s that everybody has just had enough of him.
Everybody – by which we mean the Real Madrid fans, media and hierarchy – has just had enough of his inconsistency. They’ve had enough of his inevitably recurring injuries. They’ve had enough of his unwillingness to work hard defensively. They’ve had enough of his aloof refusal to learn a decent level of Spanish. They’ve had enough of his lack of engagement with life in Spain.
Gareth Bale being booed by fans again. His Real Madrid career has been so wild. Spectacular moments that were critical for their European dominance, and iconic games where he seemed unplayable, but so many injuries and inconsistency.— Zito (@_Zeets) March 2, 2019
They’ve had enough of Gareth Bale, full stop.
And from what we can see, the feeling is mutual: Bale has also had enough of Spain.
His performance – although that’s too strong a word – against Barcelona on Saturday night was close to inexcusable. Not in terms of his lack of impact, which can sometimes happen against a strong opponent like Barcelona, but in terms of his lack of effort.
This was, after all, his chance to get his season back on track, proving Solari wrong for demoting him down the pecking order behind Vinicius Junior and Lucas Vazquez. This was his chance to resurrect his Real Madrid career, demonstrating on the biggest possible stage that he is capable of leading this team into a new era. Forget the significance of the game from the team’s perspective: purely on a selfish personal level, this was a massive occasion for Bale.
He should have been pumped. He should have been raring to go. He should have been irrepressible, determined to show the fans and the media and the club’s top bosses and his teammates and Jordi Alba and, really, the whole wide world, that he is still capable of delivering top-class match-winning performances for Real Madrid.
Instead, however, he ambled out, strolled around, jumped for the occasional header (but not too high), made the occasional run down the wing (but not too fast), exerted himself for the occasional press when Barcelona had possession (but not with too much intensity). And then he was substituted, whereupon he wandered off the pitch without a murmur, sat down, and that was that.
In short, he looked like he could not care less.
During his one hour on the pitch, Bale touched the ball only 20 times (for comparison, his replacement Marco Asensio, who wasn’t exactly brilliant, had 28 touches in half the time). Bale had one shot (off target), he created no chances, attempted two crosses, made one tackle, won one aerial challenge, made no clearances or interceptions, and committed no fouls. It was one of the most anonymous displays you could ever see, and the ear-splitting whistling he received as he meandered towards the bench was, for once, fully merited.
It’s hard to see how Bale can recover from this, in large part because it looks like he doesn’t want to recover from this. It looks like six years at Real Madrid – all that pressure, all that expectation, all that relentless criticism – have finally taken their toll, and his heart just isn’t it in anymore. His heart, it seems, is already back in the English Premier League.
At the end of the season, his body will surely follow.
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