“If Gareth Bale leaves tomorrow, so much the better for everyone.” It is a year almost to the day since Zinedine Zidane said that, judgment delivered in Houston on 21 July 2019, and not much has changed. Except, perhaps, the most important thing of all: the chances of finding a solution to a situation he has learned to live with, even to laugh at, but which suits nobody. Twelve months later Real Madrid are champions and Bale is still there, a little older and a little more stuck. They all are.
As the final games passed and Madrid edged towards the title, Bale found the focus falling on him. Not on the pitch, where he appeared only twice after football’s return, playing 100 minutes of a possible 990 and none in the final seven games; but in the stands where he was easy prey, even more exposed by the emptiness of the stadiums. And empty is an appropriate word for the place in which he finds himself: a four-time European Cup winner, it is sad it should end like this and sadder still for it not to end like this – to carry on this way, quietly slipping, legacy lost.
Against Alavés, cameras closed in on Bale joking with teammates, feigning sleep with his face mask over his eyes. Against Granada, a reporter spotted Bale spotting him, peering through “binoculars” made from a roll of medical tape and his free hand. Gotcha. And against Villarreal, they saw a peripheral figure on the edge of the picture as Madrid celebrated becoming champions, when he was even in the picture. By the final game, he was no longer there. Left out of the squad – a “technical decision”, Zidane said – he was on holiday when Madrid faced Leganés.
Juventus were made to wait for what should still be a ninth consecutive Serie A title as Seko Fofana's wonder goal in stoppage time condemned them to a 2-1 defeat at Udinese, who came from behind to claim a win that moves them a huge step closer to safety.
Fofana raced from the halfway line to score in the second minute of time added on to lift Udinese seven points clear of the drop zone with three games to go.
The Turin side remain odds-on favourites to claim the Scudetto, but are somewhat limping towards the title, having now won only one of their last five games in the league.
Juve needed a victory to put the title out of reach of second-placed Atalanta with three games left to play, but must instead look to Sunday's game against Sampdoria after this setback.
Elsewhere, Lazio came from behind to record a 2-1 victory over Cagliari, confirming their place in next season's Champions League. Ciro Immobile scored the winner to notch his 31st league goal of the season, moving one clear of Cristiano Ronaldo in the scoring charts with three games to go. PA Media
Before the Villarreal game, Zidane had been asked: “After all the off-field noise, do you think that it would be better for the dressing room for Bale to leave Madrid this summer?” Somewhere inside, the word “yes” probably formed, but Zidane shot back: “What a question, man.” Bale, he said, was “one of us”. The following night suggested otherwise, the Welshman an awkward, uneasy presence during celebrations. As teammates gave Zidane the bumps he stood back, arms crossed.
Not joining in might have drawn criticism; joining in, big grin, would have felt false. If it looked half-hearted, slightly embarrassed, that’s probably because it was. Throw Zidane in the air? Bale could be forgiven if he would rather chuck Zidane down a well, only forgiving Bale is not really the done thing any more. There is no photo of him with the trophy, and why would there be? The 2019-20 title is his seventh major medal at Madrid, but it didn’t much feel like his.
Less than a month after Zidane said it would be better if Bale went but Madrid blocked the move to Jiangsu Suning, he put him in the team for the opening game at Celta. Bale started six of the first eight, in fact. But, while there hadn’t been some massive bust-up, something was broken and this was not redemption. “I wouldn’t say I’m playing happily,” he said, “but I am playing.” Soon, he wasn’t. He started once in October, November, December and January, twice in February and not at all in March.
In the big games Zidane still turned to him, clinging to the hope of a reaction, an awareness there were still things he could do better than the rest: he started in Seville, against Atlético and in the clásico, as well as away at PSG. He came on against PSG at home and against Manchester City. But after lockdown Bale started once. In total, he made 12 league starts and four sub appearances, played 124 minutes in the Champions League and 53 in the cup, scoring against third-tier Unionistas de Salamanca. His only two league goals date from 1 September.
In the meantime, there was the fallout from the infamous “Wales, Golf, Madrid” banner, which Bale thought funny and others didn’t. That phrase summed up his lack of commitment to Madrid, some said, his clubs a stick with which to beat him. Bale said he had become a scapegoat. There was a lot of noise, including whistles from his own fans – which he couldn’t understand. And yet slowly it fell quiet. When Zidane was asked “about all the noise” recently, his reaction was driven partly by the sense it was artificially created. “Madre mía,” Zidane said, “you’re trying to make a problem: you always ask the same question.”
Considering how big this might be – the club’s most expensive player, its best paid, is an outcast – there has been no major fire. No one has slammed anyone, even if they would like to. On some level, it’s almost admirable: it hasn’t kicked off or derailed their title race. The truth was more blunt: Bale was no longer relevant. There is no hatred, although there is no relationship either. They would be better off apart, but circumstance keeps them together.
His agent Jonathan Barnett still talks, but it is matter of fact now, the conflict calmed. Bale has not said anything, which is not to say he is happy. It might be a brave face but it is like he is beyond it all now. As if, resigned, he might as well just get on with life, laugh at it. Come in, train, go home again. Be playful in the meantime. Or perhaps provocative is the word? Defiant. He feels wronged, certainly. In one group picture from Valdebebas, he stands with teammates swinging an imaginary club. Mostly, they think it’s funny too. The situation is sad but he is not, we’re told. Internally, the club feel he has kind of checked out.
Checked out, but not leaving. When Zidane publicly welcomed Bale’s departure last year, it is because he thought he was going. Madrid reneged, seeking a fee. Now, they are stuck with a player for whom hardly any clubs can pay and who will cost almost €60m in salary over the next two years of his contract. His camp is not minded to help, believing Madrid made this problem and it is theirs, not his. Of course he would rather play but he is 31, likes living in Spain, his young family is happy, the sun is out, and he is fantastically well paid. So here he is, just like this time last year – only more so. A door opened 12 months ago, but it is closed now. “Bale is going nowhere,” Barnett said. Not tomorrow, that’s for sure.
This article was corrected on 24 July 2020 to reflect the order of the words on a banner to “Wales, Golf, Madrid”