They were never going to kiss Gareth Bale‘s feet, even less so after his agent said they should, but they might have offered a little encouragement. As it turned out, even that was too much to ask for.
On Wednesday night, Real Madrid were two goals down after half an hour against Ajax, losing 3-2 on aggregate, when Bale appeared on the touchline ready to replace Lucas Vazquez. The unthinkable was happening: the European Champions were on their way out unless someone could change this and come to their rescue. Madrid had to score. They needed someone; they needed him.
Real’s fans might not have chosen him, even with Lucas limping off. Marco Asensio was on the bench — he’d be forced to join them six minutes later when Vinicius departed as well, with ruptured knee ligaments — and Isco was in the stands. But he was the man they were getting: the man with the best goals-per-minute record of anyone in the squad, second top-scorer for the club this season, the man who came on in the final in Kiev and did that.
This was supposed to be Gareth Bale’s year, with Cristiano Ronaldo leaving in the summer for Juventus. It sounds a bit silly — it is a bit silly, perhaps — when in all those previous years he won four European Cups, a Copa del Rey and the league, scored in two European Cup finals and got a penalty in the shootout in the third, when he’s the scorer of arguably the greatest cup final goal ever and the greatest European Cup final goal, too. But there is something in it.
Bale is a man equipped to be Real’s saviour, hero of another hour but still, on Tuesday at the Bernabeu, there was still no huge roar, no shout, no “come on!” There wasn’t even a: “go on, then: prove us wrong.”
Instead, there were whistles.
So, this is it. Over. Something has broken between fans and a player when they don’t even cheer you out of convenience, need or some shared objective. Even if it wasn’t over and even if there was some way back in this match, which, as it turned out, there wasn’t. Not long before half-time, Bale hit the post, but Ajax scored two more to defeat the European champions and eliminate them three years after — 1012 days on — from the last time it happened.
“Here lies a team that made history,” the front cover of the sports daily Marca said. The team that had won four of the past five Champions League were out, an era ended.
Perhaps it already had ended, and this defeat was just confirmation. It was a “s— season” according to Dani Carvajal, one that ended early with Madrid winning nothing, knocked out of all three competitions — the Copa del Rey, the league (more or less) and the Champions League — in the space of seven days. The first season post-Ronaldo was over in March, ending in disaster. The first Gareth Bale Season — and maybe the last.
The reaction to Bale’s introduction suggested that there is no way back for him at the club. It’s hard to avoid the feeling that this has no solution now. At least not an easy one. Had he rescued them, perhaps there would have been hope, some chance of a rapprochement. But it didn’t happen, and it can’t really happen now: there is nothing left to win, no grand stage remaining for a huge, redemptive performance.
Real Madrid will not play a truly meaningful game for almost six months.
As the media and the fans reacted, one question was repeated: whose fault is it? Some have looked higher, to the president: there were chants of “Florentino resign!” after the game. Some to the manager, and there were a few chants for Jose Mourinho, although most recognise that this is not a mess entirely of manager Santi Solari’s making and didn’t expect him to carry on anyway. His position is almost irrelevant in all of this.
Some have looked to players, collectively and individually. Marcelo, already gone and left out once more, has not been blamed this time because he was absent, although he has been blamed in the past. Toni Kroos, who admitted that they have “all been below our level, myself included,” has been criticised. So too has Sergio Ramos, watching the disaster unfold from inside a glass-fronted box where he sat serving a suspension he admitted he’d sought.
So too has Bale, although perhaps less so in the immediate aftermath of the disaster than in the build-up to it.
Post-defeat, the classic reaction from fans — as it always is with supporters everywhere — has been to demand more commitment and to demand signings. In Bale’s case, those demands intersect. Polls have drawn up long lists of players they want in and even longer lists of players they want out. Bale is near the top. In truth, he already was, even before Wednesday.
The difficulty is finding an exit strategy that works for everyone or a solution that allows him to stay. A Madrid manager that likes him, plays him and backs him is the ideal scenario from his point of view, giving him that freedom up front. But it feels like the tide is turning and that some in power have turned too, given the manner in which this has become entrenched. A way out is harder than it looks: his age, price and salary guarantee that.
After last season’s European Cup final, when he came on and scored twice, he said he could not spend another season like it, namely sitting on the bench. He was reassured that he wouldn’t. More than that, he was reassured that he would play a central role, especially as he wasn’t the only one threatening to go that night. Ronaldo did too, and Ronaldo did go.
The opportunity was there to step from the shadows — but he couldn’t. Marcelo admitted that he couldn’t really converse with Bale. Thibaut Courtois said that he didn’t join the team for meals because it was too late. He said they called Bale “the golfer.” TV cameras caught him watching a golf competition on his mobile as he walked into the ground away at Levante.
The criticism was fierce. It was absurd, too. On a basic level, he was being accused of … liking golf and going to bed early.
As accusations go, they’re not the most heinous crimes. Nor is his limited ability to speak Spanish, although that too was a recurring theme and an increasingly bitter one; at times, it was presented as the ultimate evidence that he should be booted out. You don’t need to be able to ask the way to the train station in order to win the European Cup.
But it is true that it ran deeper, that those accusations came together to offer up a portrait of a player who was a little separate from his dressing room, a man who had not fully integrated and of a dressing room that wasn’t particularly pleased about that. He had always been quiet, except with Wales; he’d always been a little different. And it is unfair that his timidity was taken to be dismissiveness, but it was understandable too. Just as it was understandable that Bale should be annoyed that teammates should say so publicly and effectively expose him like that, throwing him to the wolves.
Speaking of understandable, the feeling grew that he and they just didn’t understand each other, although it wasn’t just about language. The fact that Bale’s teammates said that was concerning. The fans grew irritated, some whistles followed — not so unusual at Madrid and not so unanimous, but they were there. Some sections of the media, so protective of Spanish players for whom they often campaigned, went for him. Often viciously so. You’d think he was responsible for everything.
While Bale has been hugely successful and boasts a superb goal-scoring record — he has 101 goals at the club — it has not always felt enough. It is strange in a way that doubts surround a player who has done what he has done, but they do. He was the world’s most expensive player and for all the goals he got, there were all the goals he didn’t, the games he missed through injury. He has played only 50 percent of Madrid’s minutes since he arrived.
Instead of sympathy, at times those injuries were presented almost as if they were his fault. There was this sense that while he was decisive, he did not always dominate. The goals he scored on the biggest stage almost came to be used against him: the fans wanted them every week.
Especially this season, his season. This year, Madrid have collapsed; it’s a collective malaise but it singles out individual players, fingers pointing their way. Much has been made of Madrid’s failure to replace Ronaldo and his goals — rather less has been made of their defensive disasters, curiously enough — and that means Bale, among others. Modric suggested that some players could have stepped up this season. Again, many took that to mean Bale. He has 13 goals and has found Vinicius and Lucas playing ahead of him.
Last year, in Kiev, he came on as a sub and did that, ending in another European Cup win. In Madrid on Tuesday night, he came on as a sub and hit the post, ending in defeat.
As Bale stood there on the touchline, there was an opportunity, maybe a last chance to rescue Madrid and rescue himself, his relationship with them, but it wasn’t to be. Maybe it never was.