When Gareth Bale arrived at Real Madrid in September 2013, for a then-world record fee, it looked to be a match made in heaven.
The forward was regarded as the next Galactico, the player to help Real through a golden period in the club’s history and the man who would eventually fill Cristiano Ronaldo’s shoes.
Bale has lived up to most of the lofty expectations heaped upon him, winning four Champions Leagues, a La Liga title, and the Copa del Rey.
But after six trophy-filled years in Spain, the 30-year-old is now being treated as a costly irritant: booed by his club’s own fans and unwanted by his manager.
How did it all get so ugly and what next for a winger who was once the world’s most expensive player?
During his first season in Spain, the Welshman scored the winning goals in the Champions League and Copa del Rey finals, the latter a stunning individual effort that displayed the pace, power and skill that had convinced Real to part with $120 million.
In 2018 he scored what is widely regarded as the greatest goal in a Champions League final as he came off the bench to down Liverpool.
But fast forward to the present day and Real boss Zinedine Zidane — back for his second spell in charge — is having to deny accusations of disrespect from Bale’s agent, who took umbrage with the Frenchman saying: “We hope he leaves soon. It would be best for everyone.”
Bale didn’t feature in Sunday’s 3-1 pre-season defeat to Bayern Munich, though Zidane says that was the Welshman’s decision. The relationship between player and manager appears to have broken down.
“I have not disrespected anyone,” the Real Madrid coach told reporters ahead of Tuesday’s match against Arsenal in Washington. “The club is dealing with his departure. Period.
“The other day [against Bayern], Gareth didn’t play because he didn’t want to. He said the club was trying to negotiate his departure, and he didn’t want to play because of that.
“Bale hasn’t asked not to play tomorrow [Wednesday] … so far. His situation is known by everyone and will not change. The club is going to do what they have to do with him.”
Bale came off the bench against Arsenal and scored to help Real Madrid come back from 2-0 to earn a draw, before missing a penalty in his team’s victorious penalty shootout.
“He put in a good performance and I’m pleased for him,” Zidane said. “He played today, he wanted to and he did a good job. He wanted to be with us today, he trained normally and played the match.
“I make the decisions and he played one half. We’ll have to see what happens. He’s still here with us at this stage.
“Nothing has changed, you know the situation,” he added.
Had Bale performed as he has done for the past six years at any other club, he would be revered as a legend — but this is Real Madrid and its fans have earned a reputation.
When the going gets tough, the fans stop going — or start booing.
By the end of 2018 — during the first somewhat barren spell this club had endured in the last seven years — average attendances at the Bernabeu dwindled to 62,000, leaving almost 20,000 empty seats.
That Bale is set to depart Real to no great eulogy or grand farewell from either fans of manager should perhaps come as no surprise, either. After all, Real fans whistled at goalkeeper Iker Casillas, Madrid born and bred, towards the end of his 25-year association with the club.
Casillas had won every trophy there was to win — three Champions Leagues, five league titles, a World Cup — he was the club’s captain and had made 725 appearances for his boyhood team, but aged 34 he departed with the relationship between him and Real soured.
And these are the fans who once whistled at Ronaldo; the club’s record goalscorer, the most successful player in the club’s history.
Bale has also been criticized for his love of golf. Reports emerged in some media outlets last season that the Cardiff-born star plays too much, does not mix with his teammates and goes to bed early.
As far as crimes committed by professional athletes go, playing golf and early nights are not exactly up there.
But the fans’ frustration with his lengthy absences in recent seasons because of injuries is understandable. Muscle complaints have largely prevented Bale from filling the void left by Ronaldo, after the Portugal star departed for Juventus last summer.
Indeed, the winger has been injured so much during his time in Spain that last year some members of the Spanish media gave him the moniker “Mr Glass.”
Though he made 29 league appearances for Real last season, he was mainly on the substitutes’ bench towards the end of the campaign and did not join his teammates for the end-of-season lap of honor at the Bernabeu.
But it’s impossible to deny that Bale’s time at Real has been anything other than a success.
Only Ronaldo has more Champions League titles than the Welshman — Zidane won the competition once during his illustrious playing career.
In his time at the Spanish club, Bale has collected 14 major trophies and his 102 goals and 65 assists in 231 matches — 0.72 goals or assists every game — is undeniably impressive.
Bale has made more Real appearances and scored more goals for the Spanish giants than Zidane, whose playing career at Real was deemed a huge success.
The former Tottenham star has undoubtedly produced for Real on the big occasions — Alfredo di Stefano, Ferenc Puskas and Ronaldo are the only players to have scored more goals in European Cup finals.
No British player has won more major titles or scored more top-flight goals abroad but, despite the statistics and the successes, Bale finds himself at a crossroads.
The player’s agent told Sky Sports News Tuesday that his player will not move on loan. “There will be no makeshift deals to get him out of the club. Gareth is one of the best players on the planet. I can guarantee you he will not be going on loan to any club,” said Jonathan Barnett.
With three years remaining on his reported $18.7 million per year contract, Europe’s top clubs will perhaps be unwilling to take that risk on an injury-prone 30-year-old, which is why he has been linked with a move to the Chinese Super League.
The transfer window in China closes next Wednesday and Bale will reportedly have offers of wages totaling more than $1 million per week should he choose to move to Asia.
It feels like an undeserving and underwhelming way for the career of a Real legend to peter out, but such is the circle of life at one of the world’s most ruthless and successful clubs.