That Gareth Bale scored the decisive goal in Real Madrid’s 2-1 victory over Levante Sunday mattered less than the fact that the perpetually gimpy and presently out-of-favor Welsh star played at all, and it’s less important even than his reaction to his match-winning penalty. Bale scored, as he often does when able and when given the chance, and he responded to his goal like a teenage outcast anxiously counting down the days to graduation when he can flea his miserable high school existence for an out-of-state college and finally find a place to fit in, and Real Madrid seriously need to fix the latter if they want more of the former to achieve the success still available to them.
Bale’s penalty kick itself was perfectly routine. (Though the decision to award Madrid the spot kick for an imaginary “foul” that somehow escaped VAR’s purportedly remedying eye was far from standard.) What made the goal worth scrutinizing, though, was Bale’s determined anti-celebration of it. After booting in a crucial late goal that gave his team the three points they desperately needed, Bale looked like he’d rather share the moment with anyone else in the world other than his teammates:
It’s not hard to understand why Bale wasn’t exactly the picture of joy during the match. This hasn’t been his year. When Real Madrid lost Cristiano Ronaldo in the summer and decided against ponying up for a replacement, this season became Bale’s biggest chance to be what he’s always wanted to be: the singular superstar of the best club in the world. After he spent years of toiling away in Ronaldo’s enormous shadow, getting neither consistent good health nor managers amenable to recasting him in anything other than a sidekick role, this was to be the year Bale would finally step forward as The Man, if only by default.
Instead, it’s been more of the same. Bale hasn’t been especially healthy this season, nor has he been the team’s featured player or played well under either of the season’s two managers. As of today, with Bale in full health and this wobbling though potentially steadying Madrid team in desperate need of attacking threat and goals, the big Brit isn’t a surefire starter, and he could very well find himself fourth on the wide man depth chart behind the precocious but still incredibly raw teen Vinícius, glorified wingback Lucas Vázquez, and Marco Asensio. This season always felt like it would be the one to finally clarify Bale’s position in the club. The picture that’s coming more and more into focus is that Bale’s future, if it’s to be as illustrious as his talent deserves, will almost certainly be somewhere other than Madrid.
The combination of Real Madrid’s season-long woes, Bale’s inability to prevent said travails, and the increasing certainty that the Welshman isn’t long for Spain seems to be wearing down on both Bale and his teammates. Reports suggest Bale has never been the most popular kid at Madrid’s lunchroom table, but this season things have deteriorated. Bale’s lack of interest in accepting his teammate’s affection after he scored the winner against Levante is but one piece of evidence.
Twice this month, Bale has been the target of barbs from his fellow Blancos in the press. Brazilian full back Marcelo ribbed Bale, explaining in an interview that Bale only speaks English with his teammates and that Marcelo, who sits next to Bale on the sideline during matches, only communicates with Bale through “gestures and [by Marcelo saying in English], ‘Hi, hello and good wine.’” Belgian keeper Thibaut Courtois criticized Bale’s inability or refusal to adapt to his adopted city’s customs and culture. Courtois mentioned how Bale skipped out on a late dinner (as is custom in those parts) with teammates because it didn’t start until 10:15 p.m. and Bale wanted to be in bed by 11. The Belgian also said Bale’s nickname in the dressing room is “The Golfer,” due to his penchant for spending more time out on the links than amongst his teammates. Madrid-based sports paper Marca directly connected Bale’s teammates’ words to his non-existent goal celebration, and it’s not difficult to understand where both sides are coming from.
Even if Madrid turns around what has been an awful season without much help from the club’s estranged talisman, they still need Bale’s immense quality if they are to capture the trophies that are still within their grasp. La Liga is probably over—Real are currently in third place, nine points behind league-leading Barcelona—but Real have a great shot at winning the Copa del Rey and are one of the four or five teams with a legitimate shot at winning the Champions League. They’ll need the terrifying force of peak-Bale’s power, speed, and scoring in the simple playing style Santiago Solari has used to get the team back on track. Even if Bale’s actual play up to now hasn’t been all that impressive, he’ll still flash a glimpse of his best self at points during every match, almost as if he were teasing us with what he could do if he were inspired enough to commit all the way.
In an ideal world for both parties, Bale probably wouldn’t play in Madrid next season. There’s too much baggage all around to envision a scenario where he stays at the club for another year. In that same ideal world, however, Bale could ball out for the next couple months and help lead this team to its fourth consecutive European Cup, before some other European giant convinces itself that this newly resplendent Bale is the truth and swoops in to sign him in the summer. Bale and Madrid both need each other to make that dream a reality. The first step to accomplishing it is to give him something to smile about the next time a goal of his gives the team a win.