MADRID (REUTERS) – As Gareth Bale prepares to return to Tottenham Hotspur after seven silverware-laden years at Real Madrid, in the Spanish capital there is an overwhelming sense of disappointment rather than gratitude over his legacy.
Bale scored vital strikes in Champions League finals against Atletico Madrid and Liverpool plus a career-defining Copa del Rey final winner against eternal rivals Barcelona amongst 105 goals and 68 assists in 251 games.
But as his departure edges closer, the media and fans are focusing on his eye-watering salary of €30 million (S$48 million) per year, his injury record plus an apparent wavering attitude rather than his often brilliant performances on the pitch.
“Bale cost Madrid €23,800 per minute,” ran the headline of a report in Spanish sports newspaper AS on Thursday, adding: “Gareth Bale cost €101 million and has left a small collection of key goals, a long medical history and more non-sporting controversies than Real Madrid would have liked.”
Common themes among Bale’s critics are that he did not show the same commitment to the club as for Wales, and that he did not aspire to be the team’s leader after Cristiano Ronaldo left in 2018.
A naturally shy character who rarely gave interviews or spoke Spanish in public, Bale never ingratiated himself to Madrid supporters, who have idolised larger-than-life figures such as the late Juanito and current captain Sergio Ramos.
In a somewhat absurd interpretation of the facts, Bale’s fondness for playing golf in his spare time was taken as a sign he was not 100 per cent committed to playing football, while he was also often blamed for his frequent injuries.
Bale did not always help himself though, from dancing with a fan’s banner which celebrated his love for Wales and golf over Madrid last year, to looking bored and lethargic as he sat on the substitutes bench for the final matches of last season.
REFUSING TO TRAVEL
A nadir came in August when coach Zinedine Zidane said Bale had refused to travel with the team to their Champions League last-16 decider at Manchester City.
“We never knew what was going through his head and I’d have loved to hear him say from the bottom of his hear he wanted to fight for Real Madrid,” said Spanish radio pundit Alvaro Benito.
“But everything he transmitted did not suggest he was truly committed or made us hopeful he could lead the team when Cristiano left.
“Bale had numerous opportunities to be the player we all thought he could have been due to his ability. He has been decisive in the key moments which is not easy at all, but it’s a sad situation because we all expected more.”
The sense of disappointment in Bale may be hard to grasp outside Spain given the goals he scored and the 13 trophies he helped win, including four Champions Leagues, two La Liga titles and one Copa del Rey.
But it is perhaps understandable given the uniquely high standards at Real.
For all of his quality, Bale rarely stood a chance of being remembered as a hero at a club used to watching the best ever players, from greats of the past Alfredo di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas to modern greats Zidane, Raul and Cristiano Ronaldo.