9 The Daily Telegraph Friday 7 August 2020 *** Oliver Brown Chief Sports Writer Manchester City 2018-19 Sympathy wearing thin for the galactico turned outcast Quarter-final 2017-18 Quarter-final Lost 5-1 on aggregate to Liverpool, who scored three goals in 19 minutes in the first leg. Self-respect should kick in for Bale, who has now become a lavishly rewarded pariah at the Bernabeu 2016-17 Round of 16 Lost on away goals to Monaco after conceding two goals in eight minutes in the first leg and two goals in 21 minutes in the second leg. T he empty stands to which Gareth Bale is often consigned hold up a grim mirror to the hollow shell his career has become. Of late, he has styled himself as La Liga’s answer to Joaquin Phoenix, crafting a public persona by turns inscrutable and downright bizarre. His reaction to being an unused Real Madrid substitute against Alaves last month was to pull his face mask over his eyes and pretend to be asleep. When cameras picked him out at Granada three days later, he peered back through mock binoculars using rolled-up medical tape and his free hand. These might be merry japes, were Bale’s predicament in Spain not so melancholy. Zinedine Zidane has not even selected him among the matchday 24 for tonight’s Champions League game at Manchester City, where the 13-time champions must overcome a 2-1 deficit to reach the quarterfinals. As a measure of that snub, Sergio Ramos, who is suspended, does make the squad. On the august stages where the Welshman used to be trusted to make a difference, he is now discarded as an irrelevance. Perhaps, for Bale’s sake, it is as well that crowds have yet to be allowed back, given that pre-lockdown, the Madridistas would whistle at him derisively. In this, he was in esteemed company, given the exaggerated emotions that have long characterised the club. Luis Figo, David Beckham and Michael Owen all felt the burn of their scorn, but in Bale’s case, the vitriol is doubly vicious. It is not only the fact he has scored just two league goals all season, both in the same game last September, or that he has so conspicuously failed to seize his share of the spotlight once monopolised by Cristiano Ronaldo. It is that his attempts at cultural assimilation have been so unconvincing. The next time you hear a newly recruited Spaniard pilloried for relying on a translator in the Premier League, just pause to Bayern Munich 2014-15 Semi-final Lost 5-3 on aggregate to Barcelona, who scored three late goals in 17 minutes in the first leg. consider Bale’s efforts in the opposite direction. In seven years, his vocabulary in his so-called second language has, according to team-mate Marcelo, yet to advance much beyond “hello” and “good wine”. Bale can hardly be worried about being misquoted, since he rarely speaks publicly. His last substantial interview was accompanied by branding for TaylorMade, itself a sign of his enthusiasm for perfecting his golf above mending bridges at the Bernabeu. Were he contributing on the pitch, Bale’s obsession with a game he plays off a five handicap – and which reputedly extends to creating a replica of Augusta’s par-three 12th in his back garden – might be passed off as a harmless distraction. Alas, he has used it to play the wilful provocateur, unfurling a notorious banner in Cardiff after Wales qualified for Euro 2020, which read: “Wales, Golf, Madrid. In That Order.” In a relationship with Real that has teetered on the edge of divorce, this should have been the cue to sign the decree absolute. But again, the toxicity of the dynamic fades into the same loveless stand-off. By rights, Bale should have packed his cases last summer, when Zidane declared: “If he can go tomorrow, it would be better.” And yet still he stays, mindful that his contract is ironclad until 2022 and that no other suitors could match his £350,000-a-week wages. The impasse shows the game at its tone-deaf worst: while Bale is playing less than ever, his salary is still set to rise, from £15.3million for his latest spasmodic season to £17.1 million for 2020-21. Real lack the power to put him out of his misery, while Bale lacks the inclination. There is about as much chance of him rejoining Tottenham as there is of him advertising an immersion course for Rosetta Stone. Not even China’s Jiangsu Suning, prepared to poach Bale on a £1million-per-week deal last year, can be tempted now. Instead, at 31, he has apparently made peace with the notion of seeing out his playing days as a lavishly rewarded pariah. Beyond this, it is difficult to fathom his motivation. Life on the margins can be a lonely and tormenting experience, even for a player of Bale’s riches, and it is not his fault that Zidane deems him such an extraneous luxury item. But we are reaching the stage where Bale has exhausted any public sympathy. At some point, a level of self-respect should kick in. Where is the instinct to defy the locally drawn caricatures of an overpaid wastrel and prove himself elsewhere? It is not as if the pure love of football has deserted him, as one can see it every time he slips on the red jersey for Wales. Ever since he started at Southampton at 16, Bale has always been about the moments. He owes his mystique not to any consistency in his body of work but to the highlights: the “taxi for Maicon” evening at White Hart Lane, the warp-speed Copa del Rey winner in 2014, the glorious bicycle-kick to seal the 2018 Champions League final in Kiev. With Real, he has won it all in Europe four times, scoring in three finals. He could be forgiven if his competitive aspirations were sated. What is far less easy to excuse is the impression that he would rather see out his time on the periphery than drain the full reservoir of his talent. The Wildean definition of a cynic is a person who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Increasingly, it is difficult to see Bale’s choice to keep the Bernabeu bench warm in any other way. the latter stages should City get there, as he continues his rehabilitation from knee surgery in Barcelona, and with a defence that does not inspire confidence. “I know we have a better team but we have to show it with good behaviour – equalling their personality,” Rodri, the City and former Atletico Madrid midfielder, said, in a nod to how mentality is as important as ability at this rarefied level. “You can never relax [against Real], even if winning 3-0 or 4-0, they always come back. “It takes huge personality to do what they’ve done in the last 20 years, the biggest team in this competition, and they’ve shown that to the world.”
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