The Most Successful 'Failure' Ever? Reflecting On Bale's Time At Real Madrid

Today marks seven years since the Welshman completed his move from Spurs to Spain
18:00, 01 Sep 2020

You’re worth £90million. At home - or rather in your stunning, sunny Spanish villa, hundreds of miles away from South Wales - you have a stellar, shiny collection of winner's medals from conquering Europe and one of the world’s greatest leagues, on multiple occasions. You’ve scored probably the best goal in the final of the most prestigious club football tournament on the planet and you’re the fifth highest goalscorer in the 21st century at the most successful team in history.

And yet, you’re deemed a failure.

September 1, 2020, marks exactly seven years since Gareth Bale completed his marquee move from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid, the record-smashing deal that broke through the transfer ceiling setting a new tone for the price of a player in the sport. Spurs demanded a brobdingnagian €100m to part with him.

"I have had six very happy years at Tottenham but it's the right time to say goodbye," said the then 24-year-old Bale at the time of his departure in 2013, having joined Spurs as a left-back for £10m from Southampton in 2007 and scored 26 goals in his last season in England as he was named both the Professional Footballers' Association's and Football Writers' Player of the Year. 

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"We've had some special times together and I've loved every minute of it."

"I am not sure there is ever a good time to leave a club where I felt settled and was playing the best football of my career to date.

"I know many players talk of their desire to join the club of their boyhood dreams, but I can honestly say, this is my dream come true.

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"I am now looking forward to the next exciting chapter in my life, playing football for Real Madrid."

When he left White Hart Lane in that Autumn of ‘13, Spurs were in the reign of André Villas-Boas, Manchester United had just claimed their 20th - and so far last - league title and were now in the midst of Moyes, with Bale’s countryman Ryan Giggs enjoying his last hurrah, and Carlo Ancelotti had recently taken the reins at Real, replacing the Chelsea-bound José Mourinho. Bale became Real and Ancelotti’s fifth signing of the window, following the arrivals of Casemiro, Isco, Dani Carvajal, and Asier Illarramendi; four acquisitions that would amount to around 75% of Bale’s overall price. 

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If there wasn’t already a weight of expectation on one of the few top-level Brits to make the move over to Spain, the man whose record-fee Bale broke was none other than Los Merengues teammate Cristiano Ronaldo, a player who, across his nine years with the club, took aim at every record Real Madrid had available and popped each one off like an Olympic shooter.

Bale now 31 years of age, to his credit, has built up his own steady Spanish CV. He has four Champions League winners’ medals, placing him joint-third on the all-time list for European Cups won, and he still remains the costliest British footballer of all time. His bicycle kick against Liverpool in the 2018 final - one of two after coming on as a substitute - has become what many believe to be the greatest ever Champions League final goal. And yes, since 2000 only four Los Blancos have outscored him, Ronaldo, Raúl, Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain, with an extremely respectable 105 goals in 251 games.

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At the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, he has witnessed six different managerial episodes, with five different gaffers taking the helm at the Spanish giants, with one re-emerging figure in particular having a detrimental effect on his Blancos career.

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Despite all his trophies and medals, Bale’s time at Real Madrid has come to be defined by his relationship with the incumbent head coach, Zinedine Zidane. Or rather, lack of. A once bandied-around stat was that it took 25 attempts for a young and upcoming Gareth Bale to be on the winning side for Spurs. Those days are long gone - it’s more about he’ll get on the pitch on more than 25 occasions. His first two seasons at the Bernabeu were blistering, but he hasn’t topped over 30 appearances since 2015. In 19/20, even preceding Zidane’s second (or is it third?) coming, he played just 16 games and elected to remain on the periphery upon the season’s restart.

As journalist Guillem Balague wrote earlier this year “at the end of Zidane's first tenure in 2018, the distance had grown even though there was not a single incident to point out to when the bridges started breaking down.”

All we know now is that the bridge has gone full Kwai.

And that lack of love lost, an outspoken but gentlemanly clash of characters has led Bale into a perfect, and extremely profitable purgatory. Zizou doesn’t want him. Bale simply doesn’t want to bail. 

The cameras are now more used to capturing the Welsh winger in the stands than producing a blistering piece of skill on the pitch. He is happy to occupy a seat on the sidelines, staring into space, rather than occupying a place in the starting XI. The prevailing image of the latter chapter of his career will as likely be him accompanying an infamous sign that read ‘Wales. Golf. Madrid’ as his list of priorities as it would be that Liverpool overhead kick.

At Tottenham he received just one solitary accolade with the club (aside from the individual awards) with a runners-up medal after defeat to Manchester United in the 2009 League Cup Final, and yet it is likely it will be in the Lilywhite half of north London he’ll be more fondly remembered than in the Spanish capital. Contrast his standing with Luke Modrić, another Spurs alum. Almost exactly a year prior to Bale’s move to Madrid, the path to Spain had been trodden by the Croatian midfielder. At Madrid, Modrić has become beloved, the pivot, the anchor, the orchestrator, and remains the only man to break the Ronaldo/ Messi Ballon d’Or duopoly since 2008

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Former Real Madrid president Ramón Calderón, in conversation with talkSport, believed even before Zidane, the monumental weight of his price tag meant that Bale was ‘doomed from day one.’

“He came here with a handicap: we paid more for him than Cristiano Ronaldo,” Calderon told the station after the player himself asked to be left out of Zidane’s squad for the August Champions League second-leg at Manchester City.

“People always compare. They thought Bale should be better than Ronaldo and score more goals.

“Plus, he wasn’t really interested in learning our language. That was a problem because he couldn’t get in touch with the fans through the media.

“Little by little, he was introverted with his behaviour in Spain.”

When he arrived in the country, the Wales star agreed a £300,000 per week, six-year deal after sealing that £85.3m move which eclipsed the £80m Real paid Manchester United for Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009. Today, seven years later, it remains firmly in the top ten most expensive transfers of all.

The money, however, didn’t stop rolling there. In October 2016, Bale signed a brand-new £600,000 a week, £18 million a year contract that keeps him at the club until 2022, regardless of playing time, playing time he’s never going to get in the Zidane regime.

Pause. Do the calculation. £600k a week. £18 million a year. Two more years.

He’s locked, he’s got the dream golden handcuffs, even if his feet have to be shackled. 

Gareth Bale is a man, a husband, a father, securing his and his family’s future. Even if this is forsaking his once potentially limitless football legacy, so be it. Both his trophy cabinet and his bank will be a lot more full than if he had remained in N17, once upon a time.

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