Gareth Bale's announcement on Tuesday that he plans to return to Real Madrid when his loan stint expires, can be read two ways, like most of his career. (His agent, Jonathan Barnett, told ESPN that Bale's comments to the media were "taken completely out of context." Out of context? You be the judge. Either way, his loan expires at the end of the season and decisions will have to be made.)
On a granular, practical level, it was a tactical, logical thing for him to say -- a natural next step. On a broader, metaphysical level, it fits the past 15 years of his career: ghosting, brilliant, flimsy, fleeting, the eeriness of the reluctant superstar with greatness thrust upon him.
In fact, this animation of his big European moment, the fabled Champions League hat trick against defending Treble winners Inter Milan in 2011, is a convenient metaphor. It's mesmerizing and intoxicating, right down to the spooky music, but also ethereal and leaving you wanting more. And when you check the score, you realize that despite the brilliance of the hat trick, two goals came in garbage time and Spurs ended up losing that game, 4-3.
"The main reason I came to Spurs this year was that I wanted to play football first and foremost, but going into Euro 2020 I wanted to be match-fit," Bale said Tuesday. "The original plan was only to do a season at Spurs and then after the Euros, I still have a year left at Real Madrid. My plan is obviously to go back, and that's as far as I've planned."
There's a way to read this in purely tactical terms. By going, public, Bale is giving himself leverage over Real Madrid and should Tottenham want to keep him -- that part remains to be seen and will depend on many things -- they get a bit of leverage too.
Bale will be entering the final season of his multiyear deal with Real Madrid, a contract that costs the club around €60 million a season, making him one of the five highest-paid players in the world. If the best ability is availability (as the cliche goes), that deal soon turned into a millstone around the club's neck, with Bale starting just 60 of Real Madrid's next 142 league games.
Part of it was injuries, an old bugaboo -- since turning 25, he has started more than 21 league games in a campaign just once -- and part of it was a deteriorating relationship with Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane and the Madrid media. It certainly wasn't all bad: in 2017-18, he scored 21 goals in all competitions, including two coming off the bench in the Champions League final victory over Liverpool. But Real Madrid had been trying to (unsuccessfully) shift him since the spring of 2019 due to a combination of his exorbitant salary, his age, his injuries and a refusal to restructure his contract.
Eventually, in the summer of 2020, they were able to persuade him to return to Spurs on loan, with his old club covering an undisclosed portion of his salary -- between a third and half, depending who you talk to.
It's pretty evident Real Madrid do not want him back. They'd be happy to let him walk for free when his contract expires or even, as they've been doing, subsidize his salary to send him on loan elsewhere until his contract expires. This was true before the pandemic and it's all the more true now, with the club registering massive shortfalls in revenue and Bale becoming a free agent in the summer of 2022.
By stating that he plans to return, he's sending an obvious message: "I'm going to come back as is my right, and you'll have to make sure I get paid down to my last cent, whether it's you writing the cheque or somebody else."
Real Madrid's best-case scenario involved Bale making a triumphant return to Spurs, having a monster season and agreeing to stick around, signing a multiyear deal in north London. He would have had to take a pay cut on a per-season basis, but he would have made up for it in terms of the length of his deal. That's not out of the question, but it's unlikely, hence his public pronouncement.
Even if Tottenham are paying him just a third of his Madrid package, he'd still be the second-highest earner at the club. And yet he's started just six league games, coming off the bench in another six and scoring five goals. He had been a regular in the Europa League, but only made the subs' bench in their past three outings, including the elimination at the hands of Dinamo Zagreb earlier this month. Perhaps the most telling number concerning his durability is that he has played 90 minutes at the club level just once in the past 14 months. For what Spurs are paying, you expect a greater return.
Bale has shown glimpses that he still has it in recent games against Burnley and Crystal Palace. but he'd still be a huge commitment for Spurs. And with media speculation regarding his relationship with Jose Mourinho, the club unsure of whether they'll have Champions League football (and Champions League revenues) next season and the impact of the global pandemic, it's not a commitment they can make now.
But, heck, we've got two months of the season plus the Euros to go. Finish on a high, prove your durability, do it again on the big stage, and who knows? Maybe Spurs will want to keep him, maybe somebody else will roll the dice on him and maybe -- if he's serious about threatening to return to the Bernabeu -- Madrid will cut somebody a sweetheart deal to take him away.
Some will see Tuesday's remarks as self-serving, but Bale's job is to do what he thinks is best for Bale. There's nothing wrong with that. To the neutral, however, you're left with a sense of melancholy.
This is one of the most freakishly talented players Great Britain has ever produced, a guy who belongs in the conversation with John Charles, Ian Rush and Ryan Giggs as the greatest player Wales have ever produced. A guy who held the unofficial title of most expensive player in the world for four years. A guy with four Champions League trophies stashed away at home. And yet, despite all that, a guy who leaves you wondering what might have been.
Injuries are a massive part of it, of course -- probably the biggest part. Yet there's also a fundamental sense of disconnection, a guy who so often felt out of place. From the start of his Tottenham career, where he was dogged by one of those quirky (and, in the grand scheme, irrelevant) bits of trivia -- Spurs failed to win any of the first 25 games in which he appeared, making him seem like some sort of jinx -- to the latter Madrid years, where despite his talent he felt like a foreign object: derided for his obsession with golf, occasionally booed by his own fans and mocked for his limited Spanish.
There's no sense in apportioning blame. There's just regret.
Individually, you can cite his exploits in the Champions League final, his stellar performances during Wales' semifinal run at Euro 2016, or the 26 goals he bagged for Spurs in his final season, when it felt every time his long leg wound up to shoot, something spectacular would happen.
But maybe the ghost-like, hat trick against Inter remains the most apt metaphor, especially as rendered by the animation. So beautiful. So mesmerizing. So dreamy. So unnaturally perfect. And so far less relevant than it promised to be.