IAN LADYMAN: Gareth Bale’s slow fall from grace is both a shame and a mystery


The first goal of two that Gareth Bale scored for Real Madrid in the 2018 Champions League final is worth watching again. For its beauty, its athleticism, its timing. An overhead kick from 12 yards, Bale’s left foot was head height from the ground when it made contact to send the ball at an almost unnatural angle in to the right-hand corner of Liverpool’s goal in Kyiv.

It is not the most memorable moment of a game ultimately associated with a calamitous performance from Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius but it was the most exceptional, arguably one of the top three goals ever scored in a major European final.

It sums up the second half of Bale’s career, too, and that in itself is a shame. Bale remained capable of great things, theatrical moments, right up to the end. It was just that you had to look increasingly hard to find them.

Gareth Bale’s first goal in Real Madrid’s 2018 Champions League final win was a thing of beauty

But such moments were rare for Bale, who retired on Monday, in the second half of his career

But such moments were rare for Bale, who retired on Monday, in the second half of his career

Bale retired on Monday at the age of just 33. The Welshman is not injured, he’s just done. And the strange thing about that is that he kind of has been for quite some time.

A footballer of rare gifts, Bale’s career has been rewarding. He has five Champions League winner’s medals from his nine years in Madrid. Only the great Spanish and Real winger of the 1950s and 60s, Paco Gento, has one more.

Nevertheless, Bale takes his leave having somehow fallen a step or two short of ever being regarded as one of the true greats to have ever graced the game.

Ultimately it was longevity that proved beyond the Welshman. He announced his immediate retirement on social media having played just short of 400 league games for Southampton, Tottenham, Madrid and Los Angeles FC.

At the peak of his powers Bale, pictured here taking on Inter Milan defender Maicon for Tottenham in 2010, was a footballer of rare gifts

At the peak of his powers Bale, pictured here taking on Inter Milan defender Maicon for Tottenham in 2010, was a footballer of rare gifts

He claimed five Champions League titles at Real Madrid after completing a world-record move

He claimed five Champions League titles at Real Madrid after completing a world-record move

But Bale departs having fallen a step or two short of being regarded as one of the true greats

But Bale departs having fallen a step or two short of being regarded as one of the true greats

For context, players such as Alan Shearer and Wayne Rooney played more than 150 more — the equivalent of four seasons — and Ryan Giggs, another Welsh icon, played more than 650 league games for Manchester United.

This is part of the Bale puzzle that perhaps will never be solved. Those who know him — and indeed knew him at the start — talk of a dedication to his craft, a level head, a clean life. Yet Bale’s career was one that just did not endure in the same manner that others did.

At Tottenham they will always remember Bale fondly as the left-sided flier that so lit up Harry Redknapp’s team around 2010.

His performances against Inter Milan in the 2010-11 edition of the Champions League are spoken about to this day, though doubtless not so fondly in the household of Maicon, the renowned Brazilian right back who Bale almost sent in to an early retirement of his own on a night of astonishing attacking brilliance at White Hart Lane.

At Tottenham they will always remember him fondly as the left-sided flier that lit up Harry Redknapp¿s team

At Tottenham they will always remember him fondly as the left-sided flier that lit up Harry Redknapp’s team

That was Bale at this best. Lightening quick, sure of balance and instinctively direct and courageous.

If he could have bottled the formula he hit upon that night in north London, Bale would not to have gone on to endure such a mixed and complicated relationship with the Madrid supporters and media following his £85million transfer in 2013.

On paper, Bale’s time in Spain seems to sparkle. Those five Champions League wins — he scored a crucial extra time goal in his first final in 2014 — are joined by three La Liga titles and three World Club Cups.

But his years there also tell a story of a player never fully accepted as one of Los Blancos own and of a man proud enough and stubborn enough to stand his ground rather than yield to the capricious demands of the most demanding club environment in European football.

Some say Bale never tried hard enough to fit in but that flies in the face of those who knew him during his early years as a dedicated young left back at Southampton and those who encountered him during his 111-cap career with Wales.

Bale's time at Real Madrid was a success on paper but Los Blancos never truly accepted him

Bale’s time at Real Madrid was a success on paper but Los Blancos never truly accepted him

But Wales relied on Bale heavily even during his less influential years

But Wales relied on Bale heavily even during his less influential years

Wales manager Rob Page relied upon Bale so much as he took the country to the last World Cup that he would build whole training weeks around him. Page also described Bale last year as one of the most dedicated professionals he had ever met.

A loan back at Tottenham for the 2020-21 season brought Bale some relief from an environment at Madrid that had become so toxic he had been moved to stand behind a banner following Wales’ qualification for Euro 2020 that carried the slogan: ‘Wales, Golf, Madrid… in that order’. However, it was during that spell back in the Premier League that the football grapevine began to talk about a version of Bale that no longer appeared capable or suited to football at the very highest level.

As it was, his time back at Spurs was so underwhelming that one source at the club told Sportsmail at the time: ‘Gareth Bale still looks like Gareth Bale. But that’s where the comparisons end’. Bale remained sporadically capable, for sure. He had been fundamental to Wales’ journey to the last four of Euro 2016 under Chris Coleman and remained the heartbeat of his country’s efforts in the Covid-delayed tournament of five years later.

This winter in Qatar was different, though. It was Bale’s free-kick that helped Wales through a qualification play-off against Ukraine, but though that made for nice headlines the truth is it took a huge deflection.

That proved portentous because the Bale that arrived in November for the World Cup, where Wales finished bottom of their group behind England, the USA and Iran, was no longer the talisman Page and his team needed.

Those close to the squad reported that the fire in Bale’s eyes had been extinguished, his demeanour was as flat his football. With that in mind, the announcement that arrived mid-afternoon on Monday surprised nobody.

Despite his eventual fall from grace, Bale still obtains a highlights reel that rivals any other

Despite his eventual fall from grace, Bale still obtains a highlights reel that rivals any other

Bale only joined Los Angeles to endeavour to make it to his first World Cup and nobody should ever begrudge him that luxury. His service to Wales over a decade and a half has been exceptional. To make another comparison with Giggs, the United player’s international career also spanned 16 years but he turned out only 64 times during that spell.

But then there is nothing remotely mysterious about Bale and his history with Wales. He was an exceptional footballer who more often than not managed to bring his best to the table.

In terms of the second half of his club career, that has undoubtedly been more complicated. But maybe we should just accept that footballers — like the rest of us — come in different packages. Some are maybe not designed to burn quite so brightly for quite so long.

The flatlining of Bale’s career will long be a mystery to many of us, perhaps. But the highlights reels will always stand comparison.

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