The Real Madrid and Gareth Bale situation is a sloppy affair that should have been solved last summer, or before, and has led to inevitable bad will and bad behaviour by everyone from Bale himself to the club, Zinedine Zidane and the Spanish media. Jonathan Barnett, Bale's agent, said it was 'a dig at the media' but there was more to posing with the 'Wales, Golf, Madrid' flag and the comments prior to it than that. Real Madrid and their fans remain outraged as the innocent victims but they are far from that in this story either. Zidane was forced to field questions about the player in his Friday press conference and has grown weary of the 'noise' surrounding the topic, but he threw an extra log or two on the fire with his comments during the summer when he was convinced he had finally seen the back of Bale.
The first thing to understand is that Bale was always doomed to fail even though he has played in 238 games, scored 104 goals and won 14 trophies. He was living in the shadow of Cristiano Ronaldo when he arrived and touted as the next great Real Madrid player once the Portuguese declined and stepped aside. Ronaldo somehow managed to prolong his career and, as Bale waited to overtake him as the club's talisman, even became more prolific with age. The 100-million-euro price tag and the implied promises that come with that meant expectations were always going to be hard to meet even if Ronaldo hadn't monopolised the limelight. The Welshman's introverted personality was another thing that Madrid fans could never truly accept. For Bale, it's just his personality and for them it was him keeping his distance. Tell us you love us, kiss the badge, make us feel like you're all in: Madrid fans wanted all of these things even if they weren't true. Bale was never going to do any of that unless he felt compelled to do it rather than pressured into it.
The injuries have taken their toll on the fans' patience too, with Bale missing 81 games since joining the club in 2013. This, somehow, was seen as a defect of his will to play for Real Madrid, without the context being applied. He is a fast-twitch player, who relies heavily on his pace - not speed or agility but pure, raw pace - and is forever going to be prone to muscular injuries. They could have been handled differently too, of course, with help offered to Bale to overcome his obsession with his calf strains. In a way, it was his desire to play that forced him to worry so much about the injuries in the first place. It was seen, however, as a cavalier attitude to being available.
Another aspect of this whole debacle has been cultural. As someone from the British Isles and with English being the world's lingua franca, learning any other language is seen as pointless and almost pretentious unless it's absolutely necessary. It's not particularly encouraged at school and, with every single movie and book translated into English, there's never any need to venture outside of what you know (not to suggest this is right, but it's the way it is and a mentality that pervades). For anyone who has learned a new language, the fear of making a mistake can freeze your development - and that's just in front of friends. Bale had to deal with that fear in front of the millions of people who tune into Real Madrid content. He could have made a better effort and offered an olive branch or two, but there wasn't enough slack offered for this cultural difference. Meanwhile, if Bale and Madrid were on the same page, they could have brainstormed a solution to this.
Insolence in Bale behaviour since start of summer
There has been insolence in Bale's behaviour since the start of the summer, though, after he didn't get his China move. On the same day Eden Hazard was presented at the club, he sent out a tweet talking about how excited he was for the US Open. The golfer had struck again. And while it's not outright rebellion like refusing to train, it's another shot at the establishment. And in some ways it's worse than refusing to train, because they can't punish him for tweeting and they can't truly know if it was meant as a dig.
Bale's most recent injury happened to coincide with a report that Real Madrid are not allowed to publish updates on his injury status. Bale might have seen it as a breach of trust that such a report was leaked to the press. He hasn't appeared for the club since.
There was also an element of sneeriness coming from his teammates, even if it was unintentional. "Bale doesn't say much and he only speaks English," said Marcelo, knowing that there was criticism coming in for his lack of Spanish-speaking skills. He later rectified the comments and said it was a joke, but it did nothing to help how Bale is viewed. Thibaut Courtois, a relatively new member of the squad, said they called Bale 'The Golfer', well aware that he had been beaten with that very same stick in the past.
It all comes back to how Bale was viewed: like a punching bag that wouldn't react. You would never hear anything of the likes being said about Cristiano Ronaldo during his time. Or Sergio Ramos. Most of the responses came via Bale's agent, with the lines blurred as to who the originator of the message was. Was Barnett saying what Bale thought or was he speaking for himself as the player's agent?
Real Madrid, Zidane haven't handled things well
Zidane, usually quite non-committal in press conferences, said: "It's better if he leaves tomorrow". Again, he rectified that by saying his Spanish sometimes gets him into trouble, but it was an uncharacteristic slip from the manager. So sure was he that Bale was already gone to China, he figured there was no need to protect him. Bale had asked to be left out of the squad for the Bayern Munich game and Zidane felt free to say what he had always thought.
The problem was, however, that Real Madrid never had a plan for Bale and their squad management is to blame. The 100-million fee has continually got bandied about in his six years at the club, but that figure has been amortised. He has paid it back in spades with his 104 goals - some of them very important - and umpteen trophies. He wanted out, but Real Madrid didn't want to lose face and figured they could extract even more out of him than he was probably worth. At that point, it was up to the hierarchy of the club to protect the interests of the team, and selling Bale was probably for the best. His manager would have preferred him to leave and the player felt his cycle at the club was over, too. Pride is a hard thing to swallow though.
Bale's behaviour since has been poor, that's true, and it's why he doesn't deserve to be exonerated entirely. After all, he did have a professional obligation not to sneer at Real Madrid. And even if he denies that there was a joke being made at the club's expense, it's quite obvious that there was going to be collateral damage even if they weren't at the exact centre of the jape.
Another aspect is that Real Madrid is considered an institution. You often hear of people who support Albacete and Real Madrid, or Extremadura and also Real Madrid. It's like supporting your national team and seen as something completely normal. So, Bale was not just laughing at the club and the media, he was laughing at Spain and those who love Spain. The club take themselves so seriously that irony does not exist in the halls of the Santiago Bernabéu and any self-deprecation is a concept that is foreign to them.
Zidane is a notoriously stubborn man. Florentino Pérez said as much during the Frenchman’s resignation press conference. "Once he made up his mind, I knew I wouldn't be able to change it." Zidane made up his mind on Bale and the pair have had issues since. That started when Bale hinted at a move away after the Champions League final against Liverpool. It was Zidane's crowning glory and he had Bale, and Ronaldo too, saying they wanted out. Ronaldo did depart, but Bale stayed after Zidane left, in part because of that very reason. The relationship between Bale and Zidane and Bale and Real Madrid has descended into sniping, some unfair treament, hidden messages and rows between Barnett and Zidane. The culmination was Bale's posing with the 'Wales, golf, Madrid' flag after the Hungary game.
Trophies, wins, goals - in that order. Those are the priorities for Real Madrid and the fans. If Bale can manage to keep his head on straight and Zidane too, they might manage a few more together before their inevitable parting. Bale will never be a Real Madrid legend but he has scored important goals and won an incredible amount of trophies. And he will always have that, at least.