Either Ronaldo or Bale were going to leave Real Madrid over the summer, and Cristiano made the decision himself. It’s overly simplistic to describe Gareth Bale’s slightly underwhelming Madrid career by saying he’s never fit on the wing opposite a player of Ronaldo’s immense gravity, but that’s been a big part of it. The other has been persistent leg injuries. Bale exists in the two states: recovering from a calf injury and on the verge of a pulled hamstring. Oh, and Zinedine Zidane never took to him, favoring Isco and sometimes even Lucas Vazquez or Marco Asensio. That’s two out of three problems ostensibly solved for the Welshman. If he can keep his sidelined-by-gimpiness time down to about six cumulative weeks, he should have a good year. If only it were that simple.
He’s lived every day of it, so perhaps Bale’s post-Tottenham life hasn’t scanned as strange to him as it has from afar, but he has seemed, for the past five seasons, somehow invisible at the biggest club in the world. Not because he hasn’t played (though he hasn’t as much as he would’ve liked) and not because he’s put in uniformly poor performances (70 goals in 126 games ain’t bad, plus he’s a terrific crosser), but there has been an undeniable listlessness to him at times, a tendency to go a month without imposing himself on a game. And he’s not the kind of player who excels secretly. Toni Kroos can have what is, upon close examination, a highly effective match without everybody in the stadium noticing. When Bale is good, it’s loud and sonorous. He’s eating a fullback’s lunch; he’s scoring a leaping header; he’s taking the ball from the halfway line all the way down to the corner flag. There have been stretches where he’s been that electrically skilled, physically overpowering dynamo, but it’s not a regular thing.
The reaction to Bale around Spain, when it’s not blind Anglo-bashing, is a mouth opening, a tongue poised to give sound to a thought, and then a pause that goes on for a while. Gareth Bale… Hm. The criticism Madrid papers like to lob at him when he’s struggling is that he still isn’t fluent in Spanish, which I think speaks to the lack of anyone’s ability to figure out why exactly they’re dissatisfied with him, and what the cause of his unsatisfactoriness is. The other vaguely condemnatory factoid that comes up sometimes is that he might like golf more than soccer. Which is—look, your read on this as valid as any other.
Let’s, for the sake of trying to get to the bottom of this, blame Ronaldo for Bale’s mildly disappointing indefiniteness. Let’s say Ronaldo occupied some of the spaces Bale would have liked to run into, sucked the midfield into his orbit in a way that marginalized Bale, rendered Bale sort of superfluous because, if you’ve got one great goal-scoring quasi-winger, it’s reasonable that a manager would prefer to field a more creative player on the other side. All of that is at least moderately true.
So you’d figure, then, that if we’re fuzzy on what Gareth Bale at Real Madrid is, precisely, we’re about to find out. That’s not a given at a huge club where the talent runs deep and the competition for spots ensures that few players are totally confident about being picked for the first team week in and week out, but this is as good a shot as any Bale has ever had to stand out. Julen Lopetegui’s appointment represents a fresh start. Asensio hasn’t yet established himself as a Ronaldo-like presence on the left wing. Somebody’s got to replace a sizable portion of all those Turin-bound goals. And Bale is twenty-nine. Those thigh muscles aren’t going to get less fussy with age.
After the Champions League final, in which he came on as a sub and scored this otherworldly beauty, Bale used the stage to grouse a little bit, telling reporters that he needed to be playing more and would meet with his agent over the summer to explore his options. It was plenty plausible at the time that he would give up on Madrid and leave for Manchester United or Chelsea. Of course, that’s been the case for a couple years now. You might sensibly wonder what’s keeping him in Spain, where he doesn’t speak the language with confidence and hasn’t been the star Florentino Perez expected him to be when he bought him a half-decade ago. Stubbornness? A refusal to admit defeat?
That he’s back at it again in the white kit demonstrates that, sure, he’s happy that Ronaldo has moved on and he’ll have more room to express himself, but also that he’s fixated to some considerable degree on proving himself at Real Madrid—specifically Real Madrid. He’s not a washed up player clinging to a salary figure he wouldn’t touch on the open market. He just seems to want very badly to make good on a promise. What is Gareth Bale at Real Madrid? We’re still not sure yet, but he’s definitely determined.