While Zinedine Zidane is not generally regarded as being tactically the most sophisticated in the world, the trust and understanding he builds with all of his players is frequently cited as being second to none and the key to his success.
He understands them, he was one of them. He gives chances to anyone.
Gareth Bale would beg to differ.
It would be wrong to say their relationship has broken down because in reality it never even began to build up fully.
From the outset, they understand the profession and life very differently, and 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.
Simply put, Zidane could not get to Bale and Bale started to sense it. And no words or conversations between his agent, Jonathan Barnett, and the club president Florentino Perez, a fan of Bale, could repair it.
Bale’s relationship with Real gained further headlines in the last few days when he was photographed in the stands pretending to be asleep for a few seconds during his team-mate’s game against Alaves and looking to the distance through a rolled-up piece of paper against Granada.
To try to understand what is going on with Bale’s tense and tortuous spell at the club, we need to take a brief look at how we actually got to this point.
Before people start marking him as a failure, a predictable and boring national sport in Spanish media, think on this: Despite all his problems he is still the fifth highest goalscorer at Real Madrid in the 21st century – behind Cristiano Ronaldo, Raul, Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain – and has scored 105 goals in 251 games.
He has won one league title – soon to be two, probably, despite having played less of a part in proceedings this season – four Champions Leagues and against Liverpool in the 2018 final also scored what many believe to be the greatest ever Champions League final goal.
If that is failure, I’d be interested to see what success looks like.
But the sad reality is that it seems neither man came up to each other’s expectations.
One of the main reasons Zidane left Real Madrid for the first time after the 2018 Champions league final was because of Bale. Put simply, the club – and specifically Perez – wanted to keep Bale and effectively turn him into the new Ronaldo, while Zidane most certainly didn’t.
So Zidane, unable to get any of his points across to the president, left.
And when he returned in March 2019 one of the main conditions for his return was the departure of Bale.
A deal was brokered in the summer of 2019 that would take Bale to Chinese side Jiangsu Suning. No money would change hands and Real Madrid would, over the then six seasons Bale had played at the club, have amortised their €100m investment (£85.3m at the time).
A dispassionate, matter of fact Zidane announced the end of the Welshman’s stay at the club in a press conference at a pre-season tournament in Texas: “It’s nothing personal. The club is negotiating with whom he is going to play for. If he leaves tomorrow it would be best for everyone.”
Bale was, and in fact still is, the highest paid player at the club but his wages at his new club would have made him the highest paid player in the history of the game. Real Madrid would save themselves the £35m plus they would have to pay him in wages for the remainder of his contract and Zidane would get what he wanted, namely Gareth Bale out of the Bernabeu.
Everyone’s a winner – what could go wrong? Well just about everything actually.
Although Real Madrid wanted a fee for the player, Bale’s people persuaded them that it was in the interest of everyone to let him go for free.
Everything was in place for a move, but suddenly news of a supposed offer of around €40m (£36m) for James Rodriguez came to the club’s notice. How could selling Rodriguez for that sort of money, while simultaneously giving away Gareth Bale, be justified they thought?
Real Madrid immediately demanded a fee for the player and that was the end of that. From that moment on the Chinese club would not even accept any calls from any of the parties involved in the negotiation.
To add insult to injury the alleged offer for Rodriguez was later found to be fake. Rodriguez, another player who Zidane seems to have struggled with, is still at Real Madrid.
Bale now found himself stranded at a club where the manager had made it abundantly clear he was not wanted.
Something clicked in his mind at the point. Real Madrid had decided his future for him. For the time being at least, Bale was going nowhere.
|Gareth Bale for Real Madrid|
Bale and his people did, however, make one last attempt in October to convince the club that a move was in the best interests of everyone, but was met by a wall of silence firstly from Zidane, whose response was to play him less and less, and then Perez who, having previously felt that Bale represented the new future of Real Madrid, effectively and unceremoniously kicked him into the long grass.
Also, there was no substantial offer to convince Bale to move away.
From the moment Bale started to receive the silent treatment his mind was made up; he knew what he was going to do.
If he wasn’t going anywhere and if he wasn’t going to get his chance to play, then his revenge would be to hang around until 30 June 2022 when his contract finally expires, by which time he will have received around 102 weeks’ wages amounting to around £35.7m.
Years ago I spoke to Claude Makelele who told me when he was suffering at Chelsea: “I just look at my bank account and smile.”
With a lifestyle that includes private jets, his own mini golf course in the ‘back garden’ of his home in Wales, and a luxurious house that he rents in Madrid, Gareth Bale is doing precisely the same thing.
He will stay and if they decide not to play him then that is their choice. Every now and then of course he will launch a shot across their bows.
Who can forget his “Wales. Golf. Madrid. In that order” banner that he lifted after playing a Euro qualifier for his country back in November?
His behaviour on the stands during Real’s last few games is basically the same attitude to his situation.
An apoplectic Ruben Jimenez from Marca spluttered: “Does Bale intend to laugh in the stands until 2022? Doesn’t he have desire for football or revenge?” To which the answers are yes, no (not at the moment) and yes!
Against Granada, a game that needed new energy as the rivals were getting close to a dangerous draw, Zidane only used two subs and Bale did not even warm up.
He has played just five hours and 45 minute in La Liga in 2020 and when he does play he has made little difference, which gives Zidane the excuse to play him even less.
As things stand, if someone was to come to him and offer him a way back to the Premier League he would certainly not take it.
Unlike in October, when the message was that he had decided to leave at the end of the season, now his thinking is he has been told something categorically different. He does not want to hear any offer from anyone at the moment and wants to stay at Real Madrid until the last day of his contract.
If he was to move it would only be on the condition that he would be earning more than he is currently earning at Real Madrid, because otherwise what would be the point of moving? And he knows nobody will offer that.
If you want to know where to find the real passion that Bale has for the game then you will see it when he is playing with his mates for Wales, which kind of flies in the face of the theory that he doesn’t care and is only interested in the money.
The tragedy is that at the moment, in pure footballing terms, he is sacrificing what should be the greatest years of his life as he attempts to create a reality that he doesn’t care about one of the main things he has strived for all his life to achieve.
A lot of clubs would have made a concerted effort to try to sort this out. Not Real Madrid, who have a clear idea and focus of where they are going and where they stand, and have indicated to both Bale and Rodriguez that they are not about to change their tactics, whatever it may cost them financially.
Their concern is that if they let Bale and Rodriguez win this battle then they will leave themselves open to a similar situation in the future.
What a mess. It is a battle of wills and it is a long way from finished.