Everyone had gone except Gareth Bale. “Together, let’s go,” said Sergio Ramos, leading his team out the dressing room but as they headed through the door, Bale sat there still, just him and a kitman gathering a few things up. Eventually, he stood, paused briefly, looked back and then broke into a gentle jog, the sound of his studs on the floor breaking the silence as he went out the room and into history.
When he came back in again an hour or so later, he had a Champions League winners’ medal around his neck — his fourth — and a smile on his face.
Bale had scored twice in the European Cup final, the second perhaps the best goal a final had ever seen, but he wasn’t entirely happy: this week he admitted that he had been “angry” and that night he said much the same, even as he tried to bite his tongue a little. Not because the goal wasn’t even included on UEFA’s shortlist for goal of the season although he did joke “I want to know who’s on that panel because they want sacking,” but because of everything that had gone before, the months that built up to that moment.
That night in May, as a recently crowned European Champion, Bale admitted that he was thinking of leaving Real Madrid. More than thinking about it; his mind was virtually made up. He’d departed the Bernabeu after Madrid’s 6-0 win over Celta a fortnight earlier, having scored twice, believing that it was the last time. He took a last look around and concluded, a little bitterly, that he wouldn’t be back.
But things changed. One of them happened (or started to happen) almost as soon as the full-time whistle went in Kiev: Cristiano Ronaldo announced his intention to leave. The second happened five days later when Zinedine Zidane announced his resignation. Madrid’s players rushed to offer their thanks to their manager; tellingly, Bale did not. There were conversations with Madrid about Bale’s role and assurances made. And then, just before the World Cup began, Julen Lopetegui was made coach of Real Madrid.
The conditions were already in place for this to be Bale’s best season, for a player who had already won four Champions League titles, a La Liga crown and a Copa del Rey to take a step forward. “Your time has come,” he was told by teammates — and just telling him that made this different.
Two months on, that feeling has been reinforced.
“His bid for the throne is real,” wrote Cadena SER’s Real Madrid commentator Antonio Romero. “The step forward is definitive, he’s full of confidence and now for the first time he is a candidate for the Ballon d’Or.” He has started every game. On Wednesday night, he departed the Bernabeu to a standing ovation. He has four goals and two assists in five games and was named Madrid’s Player of the Month for August.
In an interview with Ian Herbert for the Daily Mail, Bale was asked who was the better manager, Zidane or Lopetegui. “I’m not sure I want to answer that,” he said, which pretty much said it all.
Bale and Zidane didn’t talk. They became distanced and Bale became a little removed from it all, team included. In part, that’s in his nature — he has always been quite private, although his role with Wales suggests that he didn’t always need to be — and there was a linguistic element too, but the distance was increased. Zidane is quiet too, but this was more than that and they grew further apart. There was not much left to say; they had virtually given up on each other.
The less important Bale felt, the less important he became. At times Zidane felt that rather than rebelling, Bale was resigned. For his part, Bale felt he was playing well but being ignored and couldn’t understand his ostracism; he thought he didn’t deserve to be left out but he didn’t challenge it or confront the coach. What was the point? As he admitted this week, he was angry but he didn’t express that openly. Instead, he withdrew a little.
And then, he was introduced in the final and he did that. Victory and vindication, reason for player and club to fight for a future together but not yet a definitive sign he’d return.
Zidane and Bale didn’t talk; Lopetegui and Bale talk often and in English. Lopetegui contacted an English friend to ask him to recommend a native teacher six or seven years ago. He already spoke some English and has been taking lessons ever since; he speaks better English than Bale does Spanish. “It helps,” Bale admitted. “I can talk [to a manager] but maybe not go into the amount of detail that I would need to.”
There is a lot of detail with Lopetegui and yet, the most significant detail is the simplest: Bale matters.
Bale’s environment has changed, which means that he has. After Madrid’s 3-0 win against Roma on Wednesday night, Lopetegui insisted that he was “not going to get into that” when he was asked if Bale was better off without Ronaldo. The Madrid manager called the suggestion “surreal” — a question for journalists, not him. But, even having not worked with Ronaldo himself, Lopetegui knows that this is different now.
“Obviously, it is going to be a little different from having such a big player here,” said Bale. “It’s maybe a bit more relaxed, yes. I suppose it is more of a team, more working as a unit rather than one player.” It’s not a bombshell, per se, but it is an unusually honest thing to say publicly.
There is a sense at Madrid of the players wanting to prove that they too are European Champions, that it was not just about Ronaldo and that the status can be shared. There is warmth for Ronaldo at Real, of course; there’s recognition and affection and on many levels they miss him, but they must do without him and they are determined to prove that they can. “[Ronaldo] gives you many things, but it is true that he takes some things from you. Few, but some,” said Ramos.
For Bale, this is especially significant. It would not be fair to depict a Bale-Ronaldo war — there was no such thing — but the Euro 2016 winner’s departure changes things for the Welshman, offering him a central role, embracing him, protecting him. Obliging him to have a central role, in fact — an element that is often overlooked.
In one newspaper, a sports doctor suggested that Bale had been liberated and offered up the opinion that the impacts will be felt physically as well as mentally. Put simply: he won’t get injured as much now. Read that earlier line from Bale again: “relaxed” is a significant word.
And yet there are also demands made upon him now that weren’t there before, which is also a good thing. The responsibility is beneficial and the pressure of leading can help rather than inhibit. It forces him to perform and gives him nowhere to hide, no reason to disengage and no excuse to withdraw. With Lopetegui, still less.
It is early still and conclusions are premature. After all, Bale has had moments in the past where he came to feel like a central figure, more integrated and happier. And despite some claims to the contrary, the ease with which people slip into easy narratives, nor does Bale have to rise from nothing. He has been no failure: Kiev showed that, as did Milan, Lisbon and Mestalla, while watching him play so well on Wednesday night was not so different to the way he had played in previous seasons.
(He hadn’t been perfect four nights before in Bilbao, so this also is no case of Bale being suddenly brilliant every game.)
The biggest problem was that injuries have seen him miss 393 days over five years; there is no guarantee that they will leave him be but, touch wood, almost 10 months have passed since Bale’s last injury. And yet even with those issues, in his first five years he won 13 titles, scored 91 goals and provided 60 assists. It is a lot, but it could have been more and at times it did not seem like enough. For Zidane, in those final months, it was not. Remember: he started May’s Champions League final on the bench in Kiev. Remember too that he didn’t think he should have done; he believed he’d done enough to play.
The imaginer of Bale, sat in the dressing room, the last man out. He was angry then; he’s angry no more. This feels different now and has from the start, the summer of his sixth season in Spain. “He’s training with the enthusiasm of a kid,” said Lopetegui. But he’s playing like a leader.