Zinedine Zidane wants to bring the glory days back to Real Madrid, but his return could be bad news for the under-fire Gareth Bale. Here’s why his time at the Bernabeu could now be heading towards a close.
Zinedine Zidane’s departure from Real Madrid at the end of May was greeted with a flood of tributes from the squad he was leaving behind. “Your legacy will never be erased,” wrote Sergio Ramos. “I just feel proud to have been your player,” said Cristiano Ronaldo. “I have no words to thank you for everything you’ve done for this dressing room,” added Casemiro.
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But one voice from the dressing room remained quiet. Gareth Bale, Real Madrid’s Champions League final hero just a few days earlier in Kiev, where his spectacular double had secured an historic 3-1 win over Liverpool, was the only Madrid player not to send a public message of thanks.
It was reflective of their broken relationship and it is why, just 284 days later, Zidane’s return to the Bernabeu has thrown his future into doubt once more. “This reinforces the idea that he is sentenced,” read one report in Madrid-based newspaper Marca on Tuesday. “His days are numbered.”
Indeed, while that night in Kiev was Bale’s best moment in a Real Madrid shirt, it also represented the nadir of his relationship with Zidane. “Obviously I was very disappointed not to start the game,” he said afterwards. “I felt I deserved it but the manager makes the decisions. I need to be playing week in, week out and that has not happened this season.”
Bale had made his point on the pitch, scoring one of the great European goals and sending Madrid on their way to an unprecedented third consecutive Champions League title, but it was telling that he still felt the need to air his frustrations afterwards. Match-winner or not, Bale’s dissatisfaction could hardly have been clearer.
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The tensions with Zidane had been simmering for over a year.
Zidane described Bale as a “key player” following his appointment in January 2016 and the Welshman remained a guaranteed starter throughout his first year in charge, but the dynamic began to shift soon after that. In April 2017, Zidane was said to be unimpressed when Bale declared himself fit for a meeting with Barcelona only to be forced off before half-time. It was one of the first signs of trouble.
Bale did not return to action until that year’s Champions League final against Juventus, where he had to settle for a place on the bench, and in the following season it soon became clear that his status had diminished. Injuries did not help, but the biggest factor was Zidane’s decision to switch to a 4-4-2 system. The ‘BBC’ front three was broken up and Bale was the man to make way.
It was in the big European games that Zidane’s loss of faith in Bale became most apparent. The Welshman was named as a substitute for both legs of the Champions League last-16 tie against Paris Saint-Germain, showing his disillusionment by heading down the tunnel without joining his team-mates to acknowledge Madrid supporters after both games.
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Bale had starting opportunities in La Liga, but Zidane continued to overlook him in the Champions League. In the quarter-final against Juventus and the semi against Bayern Munich, he played just 86 minutes of a possible 360. Then, despite scoring four goals in his final three La Liga appearances of the season, he found himself back on the bench in Kiev.
Zidane’s departure, coupled with that of Ronaldo, was supposed to thrust Bale to the forefront this season, but instead his star has fallen further. His apparent reluctance to socialise with team-mates or communicate in Spanish has not endeared him to fans, who have booed him on numerous occasions, or to the Spanish press, who criticise him frequently.
Bale’s agent, Jonathan Barnett, has come out strongly in his defence, telling Sky Sports News that Real Madrid fans should be “ashamed of themselves” for their treatment of his client and that the Spanish press “know nothing” about him. “This generation of Real fans will be talking about Gareth’s goals for years to come,” he added last week.
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Barnett has a point about the criticism, and he is right that Bale’s contribution to Madrid’s recent success merits greater recognition, but it is far harder to defend his current form out on the pitch. The Welshman’s scoring rate has dropped and he is also dribbling and creating chances at his lowest rate in La Liga since his arrival in Spain in 2013.
The worry now is that those factors, coupled with the return of a manager with whom he plainly does not see eye to eye, will signal the end of Bale’s time at the Bernabeu. Barnett has insisted he is not going anywhere – the 29-year-old still has three years left on his contract – but Zidane’s re-appointment clouds an uncertain situation even further.
The Frenchman gave little away at his unveiling, insisting his love for the club was enough to bring him back, but the Spanish press is awash with stories that he has been promised huge transfer funds to rebuild this summer. According to Marca, there could be as many as three “super-signings”, with Eden Hazard, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe among the targets.
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It is difficult to see how Bale fits into it all. He has won every trophy going at Real Madrid and it is less than a year since his heroics in Kiev, but time is surely running out for him now.
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