MADRID (AFP) – Gareth Bale arrived at Real Madrid as the world’s most expensive player and the heir to Cristiano Ronaldo.
After seven years, he will leave for next to nothing, a dramatic return to Tottenham allowing Madrid’s fans and accountants to breathe a heavy sigh of relief.
They will be rid of the player that delivered jaw-dropping moments but overall failed to justify the expectations or expense, neither of which were of his own making.
Bale’s flashes of brilliance will leave an indelible mark, not only on his own career but on the history of the club too.
He can lay claim to scoring the greatest goal in a Copa del Rey final, at the end of that barnstorming run that began on the halfway line, circled almost into the stands and finished with Barcelona crumpled in a heap.
And the best goal in a Champions League final probably belongs to him as well, Bale’s bicycle kick against Liverpool perhaps better even than Zinedine Zidane’s volley 16 years before.
There was the crucial header against Atletico Madrid in another Champions League final, the stunning volley against Borussia Dortmund, the quick feet against Schalke and against Rayo Vallecano another surge, this time from deep in his own half.
But Bale was never loved at Madrid, even if disappointment felt almost inevitable given the context in which he started.
“The transfer fee is nothing to do with me,” he said at his unveiling in September 2013, but EUR100 million made him the world’s most expensive player and the hope was he would become the world’s best as well.
Early on, injuries proved disruptive, creating skepticism instead of affection and while Bale’s transfer record was repeatedly beaten, his wages would become a new yardstick for him to be measured against.
The contract he signed in 2016, worth EUR30 million a year, made him the game’s highest paid player, but the cost only intensified resentment when his contributions became increasingly lacklustre.
The fans felt it, whistling harder at Bale when shots flew over and crosses went unmet. When defeats came, the criticism from the press was heavier for him than others too.
Bale could have done more, on the pitch, where he let too many games pass him by, lacking either the energy or perhaps belief to whir his legs like he used to.
And off the pitch, where his lack of interaction was taken as a lack of interest, the sneering at his Spanish and passion for golf unseemly but symptomatic of an unwillingness to engage.
He made little effort to ingratiate, appearing at times even to relish his outsider status.
“I definitely feel more excitement playing for Wales,” he said.
But taking over the mantle of Ronaldo was always going to be a gargantuan task, not least while Ronaldo was still there, the figure that defined the club for the best part of a decade.
And by the time Ronaldo was gone, it was too late, Bale almost 30 and already an outcast, his decline under Zidane long-since setting in.