Slumped on the Santiago Bernabeu turf at full-time, Gareth Bale could at least take some comfort in the rare knowledge that not every boo and whistle raining down from the stands was for him. Real Madrid effectively conceded the Liga title to Barcelona by failing to beat Valencia on Saturday, and for once the Welshman wasn’t alone in bearing the brunt of the fans’ frustration.
This was an exception, however. Bale - in his second season in Spain - has become the convenient scapegoat for Real Madrid’s struggles in 2015, compounded by the club’s Champions League exit to Juventus on Wednesday. The shimmer that once distinguished football’s most expensive Galactico has been dulled, with the relationship between the club’s fans and the player now seemingly un salvageable.
And so with every criticism that comes Bale’s way, the Welshman edges closer to a Premier League return - at least on the basis of press speculation. Indeed, it’s true that a whole host of English teams would snatch any chance to rescue the winger from his Spanish torture chamber - but would the world’s most expensive player be prepared to leave the world’s biggest club after just two years?
‘Wrong club at the wrong time’
Increasingly so, Real Madrid looks to be the wrong club at the wrong time for Bale - underlining just how much British football misses its brightest talent. The Premier League, to be frank, needs Bale back.
The Premier League might be hailed as football’s greatest, and certainly most lucrative, division - generating close to $6 billion on broadcast revenue from 2016 - but in box office terms it has fallen behind. Besides a select few - Eden Hazard, David De Gea, Cesc Fabregas and Sergio Aguero - English football is suffering a dearth of star quality.
The return of Bale - who left Spurs in 2013 - would go some way to correcting this. British football has never before boasted a superstar of Bale’s likes. David Beckham may hold a comparably global brand, but the former Manchester United and Real Madrid midfielder could never claim to have been blessed with the same ability as his Welsh counterpart. From every perspective, Bale would be the perfect signing for any Premier League club.
‘It all started so well’
Real Madrid don’t know what they have in Bale. If Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are the sport’s best two players right now, the Welshman is the vanguard of football’s next generation, and yet the club’s fans don’t seem to care. Instead they have made Bale their fall guy.
It all started so well, too. By scoring winning goals in the Copa Del Rey final against Barcelona and in the Champions League final against Atletico Madrid Bale quickly became a darling of the Real Madrid support. It said much about his debut season in Spain that the £85.3 million splurged to sign Bale from Spurs was considered money wisely spent.
But as Real Madrid 2014/15 title challenge faltered it has become increasingly clear that with Ronaldo the focal point of a team built to his strengths, Bale will never fully flourish. The two men are simply incompatible in the same side.
Generally speaking, more British players should leave their native shores to improve and educate themselves in other footballing cultures, but Bale is an exceptional case. The Welshman needs freedom to be the superstar he is, and at Real Madrid he is required to be something he is not - an auxiliary supply line for Ronaldo.
A hulking athlete of a player, Bale has been turned into an apologetic, plodding shadow of the force he should be. Real Madrid fans claim the Welshman is too selfish, while the player’s agent says his client isn’t afforded enough of the ball, but regardless of the reason why, Bale is no longer himself.
Where he could go
In the Premier League Bale would have the space - both literally and metaphorically - he needs to thrive. Real Madrid might be an inherently counter-attacking side, with pace and threat coursing through their every vein, but domestically they are frequently faced with conservative, defensively deep opponents - making it difficult for Bale to get in behind. He wouldn’t have the same problem in England.
Chelsea are reported to be interested in the 25-year-old, but United look the most natural fit for Bale, with a place for the Welshman on the left side of Louis Van Gaal’s expansive, interchangeable system. Swap out Ashley Young for Bale and the Old Trafford will be title challengers once again.
That is perhaps the starkest illustration of Bale’s ability. Whoever signs him this summer - assuming he leaves Real Madrid, of course - will be getting a player who can pretty much win a Premier League title on his own. While Bale might just be another sparkle in Real Madrid’s constellation, he would be the Premier League’s brightest star should he return.
Wednesday’s Champions League semi-final exit to Juventus could prove something of a watershed moment for Bale. Hastily rushed back from injury, the winger made scant impression in the both legs as Real Madrid fell short - once again suffering the force of blame from fans and media alike.
However, the rhetoric should be flipped to recognize that it’s not Bale who isn’t doing enough for Real Madrid, but Real Madrid who aren’t doing enough for Bale. A footballing superstar is being wasted in Spain, and with the Premier League offering a compassionate embrace Bale must ponder whether the world’s biggest club is worth all that comes with it. Come home, Gareth.