It’s fair to say the bad omens for Gareth Bale’s season were very much there before it had even started.
Mid-July and Real Madrid were in Houston, Texas for their International Champions Cup opener against Bayern Munich. Bale was absent from the squad.
Asked about the Welshman’s future at a press conference, Zinedine Zidane responded completely without emotion: ‘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.’
Those words didn’t exactly suggest that Zidane was about to re-build his Real team around Bale’s unquestionable talents. Their relationship had collapsed and Real’s manager wanted him out of his sight, it didn’t matter where.
So you do wonder how infuriating it must be for Zidane that, more than 12 months later, Bale is still a Real Madrid player. A disinterested, under-motivated, under-used, fifth or sixth-choice one but nonetheless still a Real Madrid player.
A Real Madrid player who continues to collect £350,000-a-week after tax after the worst season of his career in which he scored three goals and contributed two assists in a mere 1,260 minutes of competitive football.
A Real Madrid player who seems happier on the golf course than the football pitch, was voted the Spanish champions’ worst player of the season in a recent fan survey and seemed to be taking the mickey by larking around in the stands when a substitute in recent games.
How Zidane must wish Bale had accepted the eye-watering £1million-a-week on offer from Chinese club Jiangsu Suning last summer.
Things have come to a head again now. Bale made the decision not to travel to Manchester for Friday night’s Champions League last-16, second leg against Manchester City.
It is believed that’s because he knew he had no chance whatsoever of featuring in the game, where Real will have to overturn a 2-1 first leg deficit to keep their European hopes alive. The fact Bale didn’t play a single minute in Real’s last seven league matches of the season suggests his suspicions are correct.
But he risked even more backlash just hours before Madrid were due to face Pep Guardiola’s side in Manchester. He was spotted on the golf course once again by Spanish television – hardly giving himself any chance of rebuilding his battered relationship with supporters and the press.
So it looks for all the world that Bale has played his final game of the season but probably not his final game for Real.
🚨🚨 IMAGEN EXCLUSIVA @elchiringuitotv 🚨🚨
💣💥 Mientras Zidane da la charla en Mánchester, BALE juega al GOLF en Madrid. #JUGONES pic.twitter.com/5DMYtPWOGG
His agent Jonathan Barnett said this week: ‘Gareth’s fine. He has two years left on his contract. He likes living in Madrid and he’s going nowhere.’
Zidane must be tearing what’s left of his hair out. Not only is Bale unwilling to leave, he seems to be mocking the club as well.
During the 2-0 win over Alaves last month, Bale, an unused substitute, joked about falling asleep with a coronavirus mask over his eyes while sat in the stands. Picked up by the TV cameras, the fans were fuming.
In the 2-1 win at Granada, he didn’t warm up and was filmed using a roll of tape to make a ‘binoculars’ gesture apparently aimed at those spying on him in the stands.
To add to the comical farce of the situation, Bale, a named substitute, hadn’t taken his watch off. One Spanish newspaper labelled him a ‘clown’.
His participation in the team’s league title celebrations was unenthusiastic to say the least.
Little wonder a poll of 4,000 fans in the Spanish newspaper Marca saw Bale voted the club’s worst player of the season from 25 options.
And it all followed the now infamous Wales flag that read ‘Wales, Golf, Madrid – in that order’ that was brandished when his country secured Euro 2020 qualification last November.
At their next game, a Real supporter held up a home made placard that read ‘Rodrygo, Vini, Lucas, Bale – in that order.’
And that’s how it’s been all season. Rodrygo, Vinicius Junior and Lucas Vazquez have all made more appearances than Bale, as has Eden Hazard despite his injury issues. Realistically, Bale now ranks fifth or sixth choice amongst their attacking options.
And various nuggets from team-mates suggest Bale hasn’t exactly embraced life in Madrid.
His nickname ‘the golfer’ doesn’t require much explanation but goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois revealed that Bale didn’t join the squad for dinner because the start time of 9.30pm was too late.
And Brazilian defender Marcelo claimed Bale ‘does not speak Spanish as he only speaks English and we talk with gestures and I say “Hi, hello and good wine.”
Barnett insisted ‘he is still as good as anyone else in the team’ but the stats suggest otherwise. Bale isn’t having the expected game-changing impact when Zidane does give him playing time.
This is by some distance his most underwhelming season of seven at Real Madrid. Let’s not forget that only two years ago Bale scored two stunning goals in the Champions League final.
In 16 LaLiga outings this season, Bale has come up with just two goals and two assists, creating only 12 chances and completing 18 dribbles.
He has scored 13 or more league goals in four of his Real seasons and even in 2016-17, when he only played half the games because of ankle and calf injuries, he still scored seven times.
It’s barely worth mentioning his Champions League stats because he’s not really registered this season in a competition he’d previously won four times in five seasons.
Zidane’s thoughts on Bale leaving Real won’t have altered a great deal from a year ago.
Unfortunately for him and Real, the world has changed in the meantime.
The severe impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on football club finances means nobody is likely to make Real a mega-money offer for Bale this summer. Few can afford his wage demands.
So Real appear to be stuck with him for another couple of years. They’ll pay him another £35m in wages before his contract expires and he’s most likely to sit on the bench.
There may be pressure on Zidane to reintegrate him into the side as a result but Real aren’t short of attacking options and let’s not forget that the exit of Bale was a condition of the Frenchman’s return as manager last year. He’s still waiting.
On the flip side, Bale is already assured of his place in Real Madrid history. He has scored 105 goals for the club, including crucial ones in no fewer than four Champions League triumphs. Bale has just won the Spanish league title for the second time.
But he in danger of tarnishing all that following a disastrous club season that started with spurned advances from China and ended with one Spanish paper branding him a ‘clown’.