It’s supposed to be his time. His week. Now in Cardiff. Fully fit and training the house down. Bale is ready for his third Champions League final – this time against Juventus.
But swirling around him, no matter what happens, will be controversy. Even anger. Forget Cristiano Ronaldo and all his carry on. Karim Benzema and blackmail. Even the strops of James Rodriguez. It’s Bale. The boy-next-door. He will be the flashpoint over the coming days.
Absent for over a month, Bale has seen his position filled – and owned – by Isco. The popular Isco. The chirpy, chatty Spaniard. The one playing the best football of his career. Yeah, that Isco…
In Madrid, the fans want the local to start in Cardiff. Not the Welshman, but the Spaniard. The feeling is the same inside the dressing room. Senior players have spoken amongst themselves: rushing Bale back would not only unbalance the team, but gamble with their substitutions given the Barcelona fiasco.
The Barca fiasco? Winning titles will alter memories, no matter how short. But the fallout from Bale’s brief comeback is still being felt. Lionel Messi’s performance and that goal celebration overshadowed everything. But Bale, having assured Zinedine Zidane he was fit to play, was given both barrels by his coach in the aftermath. Senior teammates were also disappointed. And upstairs, inside the boardroom, president Florentino Perez, Bale’s greatest ally, was wavering. Bale’s setback only gave credibility to those directors dripping poison in Florentino’s ear. This cannot be tolerated, they’ve argued all season, for a player of Bale’s status, Real cannot afford to have him in the stands.
Florentino, so far, has failed to be shaken. And even this week, he is championing Bale’s cause for the final. The line goes, after Isco’s selection for the title win in hometown Malaga, Bale should be afforded the same in Cardiff. And for the moment, Zidane agrees.
Which could make Bale the villain – should Juve win. But even if he turns in a five-star performance and Real are triumphant – Bale will still be blamed. Why? Because the ever popular Isco is sure to slap in a transfer request next week. His minders have already briefed the press. We all know his thinking. If Bale starts on Saturday, Isco will know that merit and form only gets you so far under Zidane. He will quit – with the two Manchester clubs (and potentially Barca) waiting to ferry him away.
The support, once the shine of a second Champions League victory in three seasons fades, will be in uproar. And they’ll know exactly who to blame.
And what if Zidane goes the other way? What if Bale starts on the bench? The €80 million man. The Welsh warrior. Tucked away inside the Real dugout. That’s not in the script. We’re all expecting Gareth to play. In the UK, it’s a given. This is his birthright. To lead this Real team, on his native land, into the history books. To become the first to win consecutive Champions League crowns.
Yet, instead, to be an afterthought? It’ll be humiliation.
At Carrington. In Cobham. They’re convinced. It’s only Florentino holding them back. With the constant chirping from his fellow board members, if the president relents, any offer that will at least match the €100 million paid to Tottenham four years ago will be enough to sell. His fellow directors will deem it good business – especially for a player of Bale’s fitness record.
It broke over the weekend that Chelsea reps had already been in touch to suggest €100 million wouldn’t be a problem for Roman Abramovich. It was suggested manager Antonio Conte was behind the approach, but it is the owner at Chelsea who is the biggest Bale fan. Like Andriy Shevchenko, the pursuit of Bale is personal for Abramovich. He would love to see the Wales captain in his Chelsea Blue.
And it’s also personal at United. Ed Woodward, the club’s vice-chairman exec, having been beaten to the punch by Florentino four years ago, still harbours hopes of bringing Bale to Old Trafford. He has the approval of manager Jose Mourinho – and the cash power of the Glazers. If a deal can be done, no matter the cost of Antoine Griezmann, Woodward won’t be caught short.
That talk of a £400 million summer budget isn’t fantasy stuff. Mourinho wins leagues in his second season. But he won’t with this team. Money will be spent. Big money. And if Florentino weakens, United won’t die wondering.