It was a spring night in Turin, and to the outside world Gareth Bale had failed unforgivably for Real Madrid, in a wide role in the Champions League. “It is very difficult when you are playing with 10 men as Gareth Bale did not show up,” said Roy Keane, unsparing on the British television commentary as the Spanish side went down 2-1 to Juventus in the semi-final first leg.
Less clear to the analysts, though, were the extraordinary strictures which Bale was facing on that occasion last May: difficulties which are more akin to the school playground. One of the most lavishly assembled football teams on the planet were not passing to him again, as has so often been the case when Bale has played a wide role. On the big European nights, when Cristiano Ronaldo wants the spotlight, he expects the clique of players who looked up to him – James Rodriguez and Marcelo Vieira are prime among them – to pass to him and when they do not, it generally transpires that they get the sharp end of his tongue.
“Centro, centro,” he tells them, demanding the ball. For Bale, out on the flank, this has meant a feeling of isolation and when Rafael Benitez arrived as manager last June, he told him it was a worry. Benitez immediately took to Bale. He liked the earnestness and seriousness of his approach to football, promised him he would make him a better player, and began moving him to a more central area. “Why are you putting him there?” Ronaldo immediately asked. “He’s standing on my space.”
Such is the bizarre world Bale occupies at the Bernabeu, where he remains the outsider in many ways. Benitez found a place for him behind the striker in a 4-4-1-1, though by the end of his reign at the club his best way of assembling the highly charged egos seemed to involve letting the key players find their own space. There were times when Bale would find an inferior full-back to exploit, only to discover Ronaldo had seen this and decided to go after the same defender.
Bale hasn’t been at the hub of things off the field, either. Though not unhappy with his life in the Spanish capital, he is not engrossed in it. He has not mastered the Spanish language. He does show up at the dinner parties which are a part of the social circuit – but generally he leaves them early. The only one less inclined to join in than him is the German Toni Kroos, who doesn’t generally appear at all. Bale’s friendship with the Spanish full-back Dani Carvajal has created more of a bond but he is wondering how life will pan out now Benitez – who was less willing to adhere to the Carlo Ancelotti laissez-faire culture of management – has gone. The fear is that Zinedine Zidane will make it every man for himself again.
On the morning of the day Benitez was sacked, three weeks ago, Bale and his representatives let Real’s president, Florentino Perez, know how much they valued the manager. To no avail.
It is against this backdrop that Manchester United’s £100m bid last summer was given serious consideration by Bale. Ryan Giggs was one of the players enlisted to persuade him to accept their bid two years ago and it doesn’t require too much imagination to see why the thought of working with him now would also appeal.
There is a strong suggestion that the impending birth to Bale and his partner, Emma Rhys-Jones, of a second child – they already have a daughter – might also influence a wish to be back in Britain.
Foremost among the obstacles to a Bale move is how willing Real would be to let him leave. There is confidence that a possible transfer embargo could be stalled for long enough to make this a summer like any other, though that could fail, which would make any sales unlikely. Perez likes a new marquee name each summer, so that can always mean fluidity, even for a player signed for £86m only three years ago. There is a feeling that Bale, more than Ronaldo, represents Real’s future, yet Bale does seem less immovable than the Portuguese. The question where a 31-year-old Ronaldo is concerned is who else might conceivably take him and his wages now, especially since he brings Perez £50m in shirt sales, of which Madrid take half. The feeling is that Bale, more than Ronaldo, is the one United will go in search of again this coming summer.
The question for Bale and his advisers will be whether Old Trafford can offer a release from the Bernabeu madhouse. United’s very pursuit of Bale last summer underlined an internal chaos of their own: a club now determined to go out and buy a marquee signing in each summer transfer window, yet lacking so much as a serviceable defence and not even sure whether the Welshman would go the same way as the last player they paid out a huge sum to Real for: Angel Di Maria. It is hard to see how Bale forms part of a coherent plan. Though most managers would say that such an acquisition would be someone to build a team around, Louis van Gaal and his management by numbers do not work that way.
There is no great affinity to United to draw Bale in anyway. He is not a supporter of the club. If they are to attract him, United’s task must be to find an ambitious form of football which appeals and, you have to imagine, a Champions League stage.
In the meantime, the tantalising evidence emerges daily of reasons why a move home to Britain might serve him very well. Benitez worried about the club resolving the recurring calf problem which forced him from the pitch before half-time against Sporting Gijon the weekend before last. Marcelo says that Bale was not missed in the disappointing 1-1 draw against Real Betis on Sunday. “It would be unfair to say that we missed Bale when you look at the squad we have,” he said. “James had a great game. He worked very hard.”
Yet more not-so-subtle barbs for Bale to suffer at a club where he is to some extent trapped.Reuse content