It is a salutary tale that the business end of the Champions League, which resumes in Portugal on Friday night, is not just headlined by a clash between old money and new money, but its most conspicuous absentee has the stuff coming out of his ears.
Real Madrid vs Manchester City is a heavyweight collision between the football establishment and its nouveau riche, newly emboldened by a court let-off for allegedly fiddling the books.
Watching on will be Gareth Bale, who has gone from world’s most expensive player to the lost soul of European football.
It would take the pandemic to rip through the Real ranks for his nemesis, manager Zinedine Zidane, to pick him, so he remains on the outer, persona non grata, a stranger to his teammates, pilloried by the fans, wasting the best years of his life but all the while becoming extremely rich.
Any thoughts of pity for his ‘plight’ should be tempered by the famous tale about the legendary George Best, another star perceived in some quarters not to have made the most of what, in his case, was nothing short of genius.
It was a moment at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria hotel, no less, when he was topping up his pension in the North American Soccer League having, in the eyes of many, quit Manchester United too soon.
A bell-boy, delivering champagne to Best’s suite, found him entertaining a scantily clad Miss World on a bed covered in bundles of dollar bills that were winnings from a casino. The bellboy looked at Best and asked: “So, George, where did it all go wrong?”
Bale can’t match the rock star trappings but he can point to a life of luxury, a mansion for a family home with a ‘golf course’ in his back garden that includes a replica of the fabled 17th hole, complete with island green in a lake, at Sawgrass in Florida, and enough money to buy his native Wales.
He can also point to needing a clubhouse to display his trophies – in fact, he’s won a lot more silverware than the immortal ‘under-achiever’ Best ever won.
But such is the perception of decline, fuelled by sightings of him sitting alone in the stands, sulking, social distancing even in a huddle, pretending to sleep during a game, or poking fun at the press or fans, but, most of all, not getting to play, that it would not be beyond the realms for a visitor – delivery boy or tabloid journalist – to pose the same question.
It is a strange story but one of our times. You would think his weight of achievement – four Champions League medals, three World Club Cup-winners medals, two La Liga titles, one each from the Spanish Super Cup and Copa del Rey are just the highlights, would silence the doubters.
Individual awards are too numerous to mention but are highlighted by ‘Man of the Match’ in the 2018 Champions League final where he scored twice including a wonder goal, and the Golden Ball winner.
He also almost single-handedly inspired Wales to the semi-finals of the European Championships. If this is failure, then…
But the truth is that even before Zidane arrived, Bale was frequently injured – as he had been at Spurs. And even though blessed with an Olympic sprinter’s pace and not a little power, his frailty was the bane of many a manager.
Even in the English Premier League, the word got around that for all his brilliant running and finishing, he was a bit of a wuss. And so, it has proved with him missing half as many matches as he has played in Spain.
Nor has he helped himself. He has palpably not blended in with either the team or the country and is definitely not one of the boys.
Nor has he done anything to quell the belief that he prefers golf to football.
The worst kind of Brit abroad, he has barely learned as many words of Spanish as he has years (seven) in Spain.
And he’s hardly been the smartest diplomat. Displaying a poster claiming his priorities were “Wales, Golf, Real Madrid” in that order was not going to win friends, only influence people in the wrong way, especially his manager.
For all that, he comes across as a nice guy but one who might have benefitted from better advice – perhaps that he will be a long time retired and money is not everything.
Indeed, his love of life in Madrid was questioned last year when he was devastated after a deal to become the world’s first £1 million-a-week footballer in China fell through.
According to Forbes Magazine, he still pulls in US$25.2 million a year plus double that in endorsements to be ranked as the 73rd highest-paid athlete in the world. But he has seen his market value whittle away to a lowly £34 million in April.
Now 31, his best years are behind him although he is still good enough to walk into any team in Europe – if they could afford his wages.
And when he looks down from on high to watch this juiciest of clashes, it may just dawn on him that he really should be taking part.
- Match to be played at 3am Malaysian time Saturday, August 8.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.