“Things can turn quickly in football and it is just a matter of time,” said Gareth Bale, and he knows. He’s been told it, he’s seen it, he’s lived it. Somehow, somewhere, there’s always a way back.
In the late spring of 2018 — when he wasn’t playing for Real Madrid, when Zinedine Zidane had left him out of every European game since Valentine’s Day and had no plans to put him back in, when he was at a loss to explain it all and his manager was in no hurry to explain it to him either — someone said there was only one way the saga could end: with Bale coming on as a sub and scoring the winning goal in the final of the Champions League final.
Of course, that’s exactly what happened. Not just any goal, either, but arguably the best goal ever seen in a European Cup final.
In the late spring of 2019, when Zidane had gone away and come back to Real Madrid — bad news, Bale knew — and had left him out of the team repeatedly over the final games of the season, Zidane announced to the media: “It’s clear what I have done.” They knew. Bale knew even more clearly. There had been a meeting — short, blunt, no feelings involved — in which Zidane had told him his time at Madrid was over. At the end of the summer holidays, though, there he was again. You could imagine him walking back into Valdebebas and stifling a giggle as he offered a cheery “all right, mister.”
He was still there a couple of weeks later when Zidane publicly announced that Bale was going, “and if it could be tomorrow, then so much the better.” But tomorrow never came.
Bale played 104 minutes in the whole preseason — he spent more time on the golf course at Boadilla del Monte, to everyone’s righteous anger — but then when the league season came, there he was still, starting his seventh season. In which, by the way, he has won four European Cups and scored over 100 goals. And “starting” is the word.
Bale was in the first XI on the first day back at the Bernabéu. The week before, he had provided the assist in Celta Vigo. The week after, he scored twice at Villarreal. That day, the Bernabéu crowd even cheered him when his name was read out; they even applauded a couple of runs. The last time he had been there, they had whistled him relentlessly. It was as if everyone wanted to forget all that, but they can’t. Bale certainly can’t.
“Things can turn quickly in football,” Bale said this week — “it’s just a matter of time.” But if that sounds like acceptance, it is not. After he scored that goal in Kiev, the goal someone said he’d get, he came out and admitted that he was “angry,” that a solution must be found. That moment didn’t mend everything. Zidane’s departure didn’t either, and Zidane’s return certainly didn’t.
Of course, Bale’s return to the first team and those goals at Villarreal, along with the sense that he may have a role to play this year, doesn’t mend everything. Bale has not forgotten. This week he said so, and he didn’t need to. Bale is not usually a man for headlines and big, bold statements, but there was a message there. It was delivered in Wales, his place, almost a kind of refuge, but it was heard in Madrid, too.
It was meant to be.
It would have been easy, politically friendly, to have left it there, issuing cliches, football’s like that, time conquers everything, and I’m playing now, I’m happy. But he didn’t. He said it was “just about keeping your head down” but revealed that it wasn’t. He contained some of his anger, his disappointment, just as he had in the spring of last year, just as he did over the summer. “Not ideal,” he called it, which was one, pretty mild way of putting it. Yet he showed it hurt, that there were (and are) consequences.
“I was made more of a scapegoat than others,” he said. He said he took it with a “pinch of salt, even though” (and this second part was the important part) “it wasn’t fully fair.”
He wasn’t going to let Madrid off entirely or pretend none of it had happened.
And we are talking about Madrid as a whole. This isn’t just about Zidane, where the bitterness remains. This is about his feeling that Madrid, at the club level, could have done more to defend him but remained silent. That they had sold him out. But didn’t sell him: that then, when there was a solution, a way out — to Jiangsu Suning in China — they reneged on the deal. They left him there. That scars, even if he scores. This isn’t over; they can live with this, everyone can, not least because they had to, Zidane especially, but it’s not the way anyone wanted it.
Responsibility for resolving that lies with them all, but Bale made it clear that he sees lying above all with the club. Listen to that line: “You’d have to ask Madrid.” He wasn’t offering to end it there, not anticipating that it would. There was no line drawn under this, and nor should there be.
“There’s more turbulence ahead,” he said. He is back, starting, assisting and scoring, too. The chance for a reconciliation, perhaps, but it’s still not right. And that could barely be better expressed than in the simplest of phrases from Bale himself.
“I wouldn’t say I’m playing happily, but I am playing.”