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29th Jul 2019

Gareth Bale has become Real Madrid’s immovable albatross

Kyle Picknell

Real Madrid pulling the plug on Gareth Bale’s proposed move to Jiangsu Suning in the Chinese Super League was depressingly inevitable

Just imagine the boardroom meeting to give the transfer the final stamp of approval. Fiorentino Perez: “So Bale has actually AGREED to the move?” Zidane: “He has.” Perez: “Wow. Incredible. And they’re paying his wages in full? We won’t have to pay a percentage of the 600k a week we owe him for the next three years?” Zidane: “Not a penny.” Perez: “Amazing. I don’t know how you do it, Zizou. Finally, we can move on from this.”

And just then as the notorious Real Madrid president clicked his ballpoint and leant in to sign the paperwork, “Oh, just one more thing, how much are they paying us for him?” Zidane, at that point, presumably coughed “Nothing” into his hand and watched as the enraged billionaire started flipping tables and throwing chairs out of windows.

Imagine Bale’s reaction, having, after all this time, finally agreed to leave the club that has been intermittently trying to ship him out for the past two seasons. And not only that, but finally agree to leave them and move to what essentially serves as an extravagant retirement home for declining footballers, the Chinese Super League. His pride would have taken a knock, sure, moving from the most famous and storied team in the entire world, Real Madrid, to play for a team who have only been professional since 1994 and have as many trophies in their cabinet as Bale won in the 16/17 season.

But then Suning’s offer to make him the highest-paid player in the world, on an eye-watering weekly salary of over £1 million, will often soften that blow to the ego. Yeah, it’ll do that.

Once again, Bale, who according to the Spanish press has completely failed to integrate with the squad since his then world-record fee of £85 million from Tottenham Hotspur in 2013, hasn’t even attempted to learn the language in his six years there, and cares only about lowering his golf handicap, is in Galactico limbo. His relationship with Zidane, which, at best, could only ever be described as ‘barely functional’ has now reached DEFCON 1.

The Frenchman’s reputation, one of a tranquil and eternal classiness that not only survived but was strengthened by his headbutting someone in the chest in a World Cup final, is slowly being eroded by the fact that he simply can’t disguise how much he wants to shove Gareth Bale through the moon door from Game of Thrones and watch him fall.

To his credit, or perhaps not, Bale responded pretty much the only way you can to your manager telling reporters “We want him to leave soon”, which is by spending the entire pre-season friendly against bitter rivals Atletico Madrid getting photographed sitting on the bench laughing your head off as your teammates go 6-0 down (final score: 7-3) before then coming on to run around a little bit, say hello to Kieran Trippier and continue laughing your head off.

Unless Jiangsu Suning stump up a transfer fee before Wednesday when the Chinese transfer window not so much slams shut as gently and soundlessly closes on Wednesday, Bale is stuck at Real Madrid, playing 20-minute substitute bursts behind Lucas Vazquez, somehow, which he only seems to be granted so Zidane has the perverse pleasure of hearing the Madrid supporters boo the player he wants rid of.

Given that they can afford to offer him a weekly seven-figure salary, it is not impossible. Given that Real Madrid are so desperate to shed Bale’s wages they were very close to letting him leave for free, maybe it is. With no other feasible suitors for the Welshman and the possibility that Bale has talked himself into the move by working out how much he will earn per day, hour, minute and second using a calculator and watching YouTube clips of all the hapless defending from fullbacks in the league. Real Madrid have no leverage, no bargaining power. Even if lists his value at £54m rather than the shrugging man emoji.

Bale’s development of a kind of footballing Stockholm syndrome and Real Madrid’s realisation that letting a very recently world-class player walk away with absolutely nothing in return might just be an extremely embarrassing bit of business has all been depressingly predictable.

They were never going to pat him on the back and let him stroll off into the CSL sunset with his golf clubs and an audiobook for learning Mandarin. This is just how it is now, where even a player of Bale’s considerable stature becomes an immovable asset for a club like Real Madrid because a club like Real Madrid moved mountain and earth just so they could to sign him in the first place, and then tie him down on a longer contract with more money, and then watched in horror as the injuries piled up and the manager and supporters turned on him.

He now exists as a kind of extravagant lawn ornament more than an actual footballer at this point, a reminder not of the four Champions League trophies he helped the club win, of better times, as he should be, but of the sourness and greed that typically follows successes. There’s an obvious and quite sad irony in that, given who Real Madrid are and how they operate. The real tragedy, though, is in the modern phenomenon of the footballing albatross, from Sanchez to Ozil to Neymar to Coutinho to Pogba, the increasing frequency with which we are seeing superstar players handed bumper contracts by bumper clubs only to become embroiled in a transfer saga every time the window is open which, due to the bumper contracts handed to them by the bumper clubs that now want them to leave, usually ends in stalemate.

Now all these teams have all these albatrosses and they can’t move any of them because the clubs that would typically take them off their hands, the only clubs that can afford to do so that aren’t in China, now can’t afford to. Real Madrid can’t buy Neymar because they still have Gareth Bale. Manchester United can’t buy Bale because they have Alexis Sanchez and Paul Pogba. PSG can’t buy Coutinho because they have Neymar. Real Madrid can’t buy Paul Pogba because they have Bale.

All that’s left to do now is wait, as Bale starts the season still at Real Madrid, Zidane slowly accepts the fact and gives him some starts now and then and just when you start to think, or hope, that the real destroyer-of-worlds wing tornado that was prime Gareth Bale is back, another transfer window will roll around and we will have to do this grating, relentless transfer panto all over again with all the same clubs and all the same players until one day he goes.

And once he does that, heads east to earn more money per week than most earn in a lifetime and play against League Two defenders, he will be gone for good.