As Real Madrid’s worst domestic season since the turn of the century came to a close under a chorus of boos from the Bernabéu faithful, Gareth Bale sulked. As was all too common during this miserable season, Bale was purely a spectator for Madrid’s 0-2 loss to Real Betis, watching from the bench but never making it onto the pitch in what everyone must hope is his final game in Spain, one last affront to the man who came to Madrid to realize a dream and will leave fleeing a nightmare.
It’s a shame things had to end like this, even while an ugly conclusion to a strangely under-appreciated six years of wondrous success has felt inevitable for months now. What should’ve been the best news for the Welshman—Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure last summer—quickly turned into the worst. The spotlight that had been so fixated on Ronaldo did indeed turn toward Bale once the Portuguese forward left for Italy, but rather than illuminating Bale’s overlooked skills and contributions during what could’ve been a season of Bale-driven success, the harsh glow only made Bale’s flaws and shortcomings when compared to Ronaldo all the more stark during one of the worst Real Madrid seasons in the modern era.
When Bale could’ve stepped up in Ronaldo’s absence, he instead stepped back, putting together arguably his worst individual season of his career. And it felt like everyone—from the fans to the three(!) Madrid managers to his teammates and to even his former biggest champion, club president Florentino Pérez—grew to bitterly resent him for it. With the rise of Vinícius Júnior this season and the imminent arrival of Eden Hazard this summer, there’s no place for Bale at the Bernabéu, on or off the field.
And so comes the biggest question for Real this summer, bigger than any incoming transfer: Where the hell will they send their Welsh malcontent? Though still just 29 years old, Bale hasn’t been consistently healthy or good for years now. He reportedly makes almost €400,000 a week, an impossibly large figure even in today’s capitalist fever dream of a soccer transfer market. Trying to imagine a club that would or even could take him now, at his age with his injury history and his gargantuan salary, is incredibly difficult.
Chelsea would probably be the most enticing option, as they look almost certain to lose Hazard this summer, and Bale has previously run roughshod through the Premier League. But the Blues are facing a two-window transfer ban and might not be able to even get in the race if can’t delay the punishment for the upcoming summer window during the appeals process. Manchester United also need a face lift after finishing sixth in the Premier League, but after their experience with Alexis Sánchez, they might not be amenable to the idea of handing a boatload of money out to yet another aging star.
There are less-than-credible reports that PSG could be coming in for a big Real shopping spree, though that might be the best destination for Bale if those rumors end up being true: a front line of Neymar, Kylian Mbappé, and Bale would stomp the French league as easily as ever, and the lesser domestic strain of Ligue 1 might help Bale stay healthy for the all-important Champions League matches.
The problem is that Bale’s value has never been lower, particularly compared to what he will cost. That’s part of what made manager Zinedine Zidane’s decision not to play Bale down the stretch (he hasn’t gotten any playing time since the end of April) so especially petty. Had Zidane let Bale strut his stuff during meaningless late-season games, burn some defenders in a sprint and chip in a few goals, Bale might’ve been able to remind clubs around the world that he still has something close to “It,” and in turn might convince someone to front the considerable cash it will take to lure Bale away.
Instead, as his teammates suffered one last home defeat (Real lost 12 league games this season, five of them at the Bernabéu), Bale slinked off for what appears to be the last time, avoiding the final whistles and boos but also missing out on a proper farewell. If Madrid fans were being honest, they’d have to admit how much Bale enriched them with his presence, no matter his faults. The man was an assassin in big games for Real, scoring the eventual winners in two Champions League finals and murdering poor Marc Bartra in the 2014 Copa del Rey final with one of the best exhibitions of raw speed you’ll ever see:
The risk is that those memories of the many, many great things Bale did in Madrid will go forgotten, replaced by the overpowering sense that he was a failure, more ghost of vague disappointment than important presence in furtherance of winning. That is why, even though he would have gotten booed mercilessly by his own fans, Bale deserved one last moment in front of them as closure to the era. At least the fans’ boos would have shown that they care, about his unfulfilled potential as a world-beater and about his failures this season, that they remember him. Instead, Bale left in deafening silence, one last indignity in a season defined by melancholy and a tenure defined by dissatisfaction.