After a while, Gareth Bale almost seemed to relish it: the confrontation, the controversy, the opprobrium. It was as if he had stopped trying to fight it, wasting his energy correcting misunderstandings or railing at willful misinterpretations, and instead invited them to come crashing down on him.
The flag, Bale felt, was just a bit of a joke. He had seen it — the Welsh dragon, festooned with the slogan “Wales, Golf, Madrid, In That Order,” a reference to a chant that had been doing the rounds among the fans of his national team — a few weeks before, and he found it funny enough to demur when his teammates suggested they might like to show it off.
But then came the images of Bale in the games of the socially distanced era, sitting in the stands as he watched Real Madrid play yet another game without his participation, his mind clearly wandering: rolling up a piece of cardboard as a telescope, covering his eyes with his face mask or pretending to drop off to sleep.
It was all a little childish, not especially professional, but essentially harmless: plenty of players joke around during their time on the substitutes’ bench. (There have been rare instances of phones being checked, though to many that is beyond the pale.) But still: those pictures spoke of boredom, of frivolity, of a player who had long since stopped caring.
Bale, deep down, probably had. He knew, by then, that he was not going to play, and that even if he did play, he would not start the next game, or the game after that. Real Madrid’s manager, Zinedine Zidane, had made it abundantly clear he did not have a place in his plans, much less on his team.
Real Madrid’s fans — though absent from the stands — had long since let Bale know that he was no longer welcome. The team’s allies in the Spanish news media had let slip, time and again, that the club’s hierarchy felt the same way. Someone, somewhere had been briefing reporters, over and over, that Bale had long been a distant, detached figure, that he had never bothered learning Spanish, that he preferred to play golf. Bale knew he was not wanted. He was no longer prepared to go along with the charade.
Bale’s war with his employer has been simmering for so long that the strangeness of the situation has been obscured. Until last summer, he was still, after all, Real Madrid’s record signing, by all calculations except the ones they gave to Cristiano Ronaldo. It has hardly been a disastrous investment: in his seven years in Spain, Bale won La Liga twice and the Champions League four times.
He has actively won those trophies, too: he has not just been along for the ride. He scored in the final in 2014 — the goal that put Real Madrid ahead in extra time and finally broke Atlético Madrid’s resolve and, as a substitute, two more in the victory over Liverpool in 2018. The first was, perhaps, the finest goal ever scored in a European Cup final.
And yet, now, there is little to no querying of why, exactly, Zidane has no time for a player who has enjoyed such success, and who has, at times, delivered for him. Blame is apportioned not to the coach who has ostracized him, but to the player, for either not justifying his vast salary or foregoing it entirely simply to escape.
The idea that Real Madrid might be so desperate to shed him from its books, meanwhile, that it was willing to allow him to return to his former club, Tottenham Hotspur, on loan — for no fee, and with Spurs covering only half his wages — is seen, if anything, not as madness on the part of Real Madrid but as a risk for Tottenham.
Zidane’s record, of course, helps with all of that, as it is difficult to question too intensely the judgment of a coach who has won three Champions League titles in five attempts. So, too, do those images, the ones that make Bale look reckless and feckless in equal measure, the ones that lend credence to the accusations that he does not mind not playing, as long as he is getting paid, the ones that suggest he is either playing to the gallery or trolling his critics.
And so, without question, does the propaganda campaign that seems to have been waged against Bale — again, so as not to lose sight of how odd this is, a Real Madrid employee — by the club itself. Bale is, by almost any measure, the most successful player Britain has ever exported: only another Welsh star, John Charles, can really lay claim to coming close.
But so successfully and so relentlessly has Bale been depicted as a mercenary, happy just to pick up his paycheck and go and play golf, that even in Britain he is not afforded the reverence that his career warrants. Wales remains fiercely loyal, of course, but to that great, borderless constituency of Premier League fans, Bale will be returning from Spain with his tail between his legs.
When Bale joins Spurs — the team confirmed his move on Saturday — he will be seen not as a coup but as either an indulgence — a little reverie on memory lane for Daniel Levy, the Spurs chairman — or a luxury. Manchester United considered him, but decided Jadon Sancho was a far better bet. Most fans, of most clubs aside from Tottenham, would agree.
That offers a glimpse not only of the power of the news media to shape perceptions, even when refracted by the interpretation of a second media bloc — what is written in Spanish papers eventually bleeds into their British equivalents — but of just how fickle the business Bale finds himself in can be.
It is at the height of the transfer window that soccer’s goldfish memory, its faddishness and its immediacy, is seen most clearly. The next thing is always the best thing. Potential is always more exciting than proof. As José Mourinho, Bale’s imminent manager, once observed, soccer is a sport that prefers those who have never lost a game, even if they have never played one.
English soccer — perhaps European soccer — has, in a sense, moved on from Bale. He is no longer new and exciting and fresh. The fact that he is, instead, tried and tested and proven is either deemed irrelevant or actively counts against him. Since he left, others have risen to take his place. He is a short-term signing. He is a gamble. He is a busted flush. He is not for us. He is best left to Spurs. He is a player from the past.
And yet, when he returns to the Premier League, he will do so as possibly the most decorated player ever to arrive on these shores. Age and injury may have dimmed his star a little, but memories should not be so short as to forget the force of nature that he once was, and that he might yet — even occasionally — still be. Common sense should dictate that, after seven years at Real Madrid, he might be something more than pace and power.
None of that should be overlooked, and none of it should be forgotten. All that Bale has achieved should not be obscured by the machinations of the Real Madrid machine, or by his succumbing to it. All that he was — all that he might still be, in the right time and the right place — should not be consigned quite so easily to yesterday. Soccer never stops moving; that is what makes it so compelling, so competitive. There are times, though, when it moves just a little too fast for its own good.
Only time will tell whether, in this instance, the best was saved for last. All we can say for certain, for now, is that English soccer’s great sweep of American playing talent built to a dazzling crescendo.
Sam Mewis and Rose Lavelle joined Manchester City. Tobin Heath and Christen Press signed for Manchester United. And then, after a fitting pause for dramatic effect, Alex Morgan agreed to a deal to move to Tottenham Hotspur. In one sense, Morgan’s signing will be the least successful of the five transfers — Spurs is not likely to be a title contender — but it may be the most impactful: Morgan is the sort of player you can build a franchise, to use that heretical word, around.
In England, the initial excitement at seeing this squadron of World Cup-winners land on our shores has given way, now, to a more traditional, niggling anxiety: the stockpiling of superstars at a handful of clubs in the Women’s Super League has already brought about several troublingly one-sided scorelines that do the division’s competitive balance no favors.
The more significant impact may, though, be in the United States. At a time when the coronavirus pandemic is making the mere act of playing sports almost unimaginably complicated, is it possible that not only will these players stay in Europe, but that more will follow them? How that might affect the women’s game in what has been, for decades, its global stronghold?
What to Watch This Weekend
European soccer finally welcomes its latecomers, Germany and Italy, this weekend, though perhaps the red-letter fixture is in the Premier League, where the champions, Liverpool, visit a Chelsea team transformed by a remarkable recruitment blitz on Sunday.
It is worth keeping an eye on Liverpool in these early weeks: Jürgen Klopp’s team won a chaotic season-opening match against newly-promoted Leeds United, but the entirely random and in-no-way-weighted-for-drama fixture computer has hardly been kind. After Chelsea, Arsenal, Everton and Manchester City all feature in Liverpool’s early season diary. Liverpool’s chances of repeating its flawless start of last year are close to, if not at, zero.
There are games worth catching in Germany — Borussia Dortmund against Borussia Mönchengladbach, two of last season’s title contenders — and in France, too, where Marseille faces Lille and Paris St.-Germain, which has lost its first two matches, travels to Nice.
But the story of the weekend is in Turin, and soccer’s first glimpse of Andrea Pirlo as a coach. What sort of soccer will his team play? Can he help this team rediscover its identity? What will he be wearing? It won’t be a tracksuit, surely. Andrea Pirlo can’t wear a tracksuit. His Juventus team hosts Sampdoria — managed by Claudio Ranieri, a man who has just a touch more sideline experience than his opposite number — as it begins its quest for a 10th straight Italian championship.
Several emails arrived this week, all of them asking roughly the same question. I think I’ve mentioned before that one of the great pleasures of working for The Times — as well as the chance to refer to “The Daily” host Michael Barbaro as “my colleague” — is that we have a far broader audience than most, and that gives me the chance to interrogate some of the ideas that I might otherwise assume just exist. This is one of those chances.
The questions came from several readers who — it is probably fair to assume — have come to soccer slightly later in life, and boiled down to this: “How does the transfer system work? Who pays what to whom? And how is it related to a player’s salary?”
My initial response, of course, was that this is easy. Club A has a player — let’s call him Ian Midfielder — that Club B wants to buy. Club B contacts Club A and asks how much Ian Midfielder costs; the clubs then negotiate until they reach a price that is acceptable to both. At that point, Club B has permission to speak to Ian Midfielder’s agent, and they work out a salary and a signing-on fee that might be acceptable to both.
Once that is done, someone from Club B’s social media team takes a photo of Ian Midfielder holding a pen, and lots of people on Twitter who have never seen Ian Midfielder play declare him to be the greatest talent in the game, and lots of other people on social media say he is a complete fraud. (And increasingly, a third group of people say: Right, that’s Ian Midfielder done. Now announce Juan Miguel Striker.)
But it is not that simple, is it? Because the amount of money Club A asks for is not rooted in anything. It is not a reflection, for example, of how much money that club still owes Ian Midfielder on his contract (though generally players with longer contracts do cost more money to buy). The price can be high, if the club wants to keep him, or it can be low, if they have decided they want to sign someone else, or are distressed sellers.
It is, essentially, a random number that an executive plucks from thin air on the grounds that they think they can get it. Even in Spain, where all players have release clauses — set fees at which they can leave their current clubs, famous names like Equipo A and Sociedad B. Those numbers are almost entirely arbitrary, too.
Most clubs now have valuation models, a slightly more scientific way of determining a player’s worth, but they are flawed, too, because the market context that is built into their algorithms is based on more than a century of numbers plucked from thin air.
And that is before we get into the nonsense of agents who are paid to negotiate a deal for the player, but also sometimes to act on behalf of the club, despite the fact that all of the clubs have people who are specifically employed to do these things. Or those cases where clubs sell their rights to a transfer fee to a third party, or take out a loan mortgaged against future transfer income.
All of which makes you wonder, deep down, whether the transfer system — upon which so much of the soccer economy depends — really works, and whether it is actually right that we talk so openly and liberally about what is an actual trade in human beings, and why it is that soccer is not like any other job, where you can kind of just work where you want to work.