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21st Jul 2019

Gareth Bale’s Real Madrid plight shows that when a big club wants you gone, you’re gone

Simon Lloyd

Bale is closer than ever to a Real Madrid exit

In 2001, Jaap Stam was forced out of Manchester United.

Few – if any – saw it coming. Stam had been a mainstay in central defence at Old Trafford since his arrival from PSV Eindhoven in 1998; a significant contributory factor to United sealing the Treble during his first season and the two league title successes which followed.

Despite all this, Sir Alex Ferguson sensed he’d lost a yard of pace after surgery on his achilles tendon and a deal with Lazio was hastily arranged.  The Dutch international was moved on to Italy in exchange for £16.5m.

Writing about Stam’s departure in the Daily Telegraph at the time, Roy Keane, then United’s influential captain, said it was a reminder of how little power players had – that ultimately, contracts counted for nothing when a manager or club decided their time was up.

‘He (Stam) has discovered that, to football clubs, players are just expensive pieces of meat,’ Keane wrote, unaware of how these words were preempting his own acrimonious exit from the club years later.

‘The harsh realities remain and when a club decide they want to sell there is little you can do once the wheels are in motion.”

Nearly two decades on, Keane’s piece of meat analogy is just as applicable to the plight of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid.

Following Zinedine Zidane’s blunt comments to reporters in the US on Saturday, the position of the Welshman, once a world record-breaking signing who scored decisive goals in two Champions League finals for the club, is more precarious than ever before at the Bernabeu. Bale missed Real’s 3-1 pre-season defeat in Houston by Bayern Munich, with Zidane confirming afterwards that the 30-year-old’s departure could be imminent.

“We hope he leaves soon,” he said. “It would be best for everyone. We are working on his transfer to a new team.

“I have nothing personal against him, but there comes a time where things are done because they must be done.”

Zidane’s comments have prompted an angry response from Bale’s agent, Jonathan Barnett, who has labelled him a “disgrace” for his thinly-veiled attempts to sell his client. A chapter which has produced some fairytale moments for Bale now appears to be drawing to an ugly close.

Bale’s exit has, of course, seemed inevitable from the moment Zidane’s return as Real manager was confirmed in March. The pair’s frosty relationship was evident 10 months earlier, when Bale was benched by Zidane for the Champions League final with Liverpool only to come on and win the game for Real with two goals in the final half hour in Kiev.

Confirming after the game that his future in Spain depended on whether he was guaranteed regular starts, only Zidane’s resignation days later appeared to prolong the former Tottenham winger’s time in Madrid.

Following that, the transfer of Cristiano Ronaldo to Juventus presented him with an opportunity to establish himself as the main man in a new-look Real team. Alas, it wasn’t to be for Bale. Not helped by injury and Real’s failure to bring in players to help make up the number of goals that Ronaldo guaranteed, the season was a disaster as the club spluttered – first under Julen Lopetegui; then with Santiago Solari. With Zidane eventually restored, Bale was even denied the chance to bid farewell to the Bernabeu crowd in the final home game of last season, remaining an unused substitute in a defeat against Real Betis.

Though Bale – along with every other player in Real Madrid’s illustrious history – has failed to match the dizzying goal scoring figures posted by Ronaldo, a return of 102 in 231 matches is far from a poor return and his time in Spain should be remembered on the whole as a success. In his first season, his goals helped clinched a Copa del Rey final against Barcelona and, more famously, La Decima in the Champions League final against Atletico Madrid. He won a league title in 2017 and went on to play his part in three other European Cup wins, most prominently from the bench in Kiev. He has more than played his part in one of the most successful club sides the footballing world has ever known and it’s these moments that should define Bale’s time as a Real player.

If this is the end,  Zidane’s eagerness for Bale to depart is in stark contrast to his stance in 2013. Transitioning from his role as Real’s Sporting Director to Carlo Ancelotti’s assistant, he openly spoke of his admiration for Bale as Florentino Perez pursued a world record-shattering transfer to bring him to Spain from Spurs. Six years on, Zidane appears just as vocal in pushing Bale so unceremoniously towards the exit door.

Where Bale starts next season remains to be seen, but even though his current contract with Real only expires in 2022, it almost certainly won’t be with the 13-time European champions. Though much has been said and written about the increase in player power in the modern game, his situation – like that of Stam all those years ago – proves that if a club wants you gone, there’s only one outcome. At the very top, past successes count for nothing.