Real Madrid: Bale a headache for every coach he’s had



The latest issue surrounding Gareth Bale? His determination to play for Wales against Spain, despite sitting out three games for his club…

Gareth Bale is again at the centre of controversy, and it’s by no means a new scenario. The Real Madrid winger has travelled to Wales to join up with his national team and wants to play against Spain this Thursday – a state of affairs which has left noses out of joint at the Bernabéu after he sat out the second half against Atlético complaining of groin trouble (tests later revealing that he had not suffered any muscle damage), missed the trip to Moscow (where Los Blancos lost to CSKA) and, finally, asked to be brought off with 20 minutes to go at Alavés, with the scores still goalless (not before taking a direct free-kick, however; he had sought out the substitution with one eye on his country’s game against La Roja). Real ended up losing 1-0…

It’s a situation (he’s “afraid of getting injured,” club doctors say) that has forced Julen Lopetegui to change his plans on the fly, and contributed to leaving the Real Madrid head coach in all sorts of problems. Yet the forward – who, the LaLiga giants say, “has muscle fatigue but is not injured” – was nevertheless intending to play against Spain, only for Los Merengues to formally ask Wales to rest him for the friendly in Cardiff (and hold him back until the UEFA Nations League clash with Ireland next Tuesday). With Cristiano Ronaldo gone, all eyes are on Bale to spearhead the new Real Madrid, but his frequent fitness issues and his seemingly greater devotion to country than to club have left Los Blancos, and their new coach, exposed…

Carlo Ancelotti

In one way or another, Bale has proved a headache for every Real coach he’s played for. Signed in 2013 at the insistence of club president Florentino Pérez – not because the team actually needed him – his 101m-euro arrival (at the time, it was a world-record fee) forced then-coach Carlo Ancelotti to seek a way to shoehorn him into the side. The Italian found the answer by removing Ángel di María from the right wing, despite this not being Bale’s natural position (he had shot to prominence on the other flank, first as a full-back and then as a winger). The move signalled the birth of the famous ‘bbC’ trio of Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano, three players who focused only on attack and left their side exposed in defence. Ancelotti solved this imbalance in the side by fielding Di María in midfield, a plan that ended up with ‘La Décima’, the club’s 10th European title.

Having negotiated his way out of one tight spot, Bale was again at the heart of issues for Ancelotti the following season. Pérez signed James Rodríguez for 80m euros after his World Cup Golden Boot, a signing that shunted Di María, who finally departed for Manchester United, out of the side. Ancelotti was left to go back to the drawing board, and Real came flying out of the traps, putting together a run of 22 wins on the bounce. However, after a money-spinning friendly against AC Milan in Dubai, the team suffered a physical collapse amid a mailstrom of conflicts – chief among which was one centring around Bale, and which had a big hand in Ancelotti’s end-of-season sacking. In January, the coach hauled the player off at Valencia as Real went down 2-1 – in the process surrendering their winning run – and, as Ancelotti later revealed in his book ‘Quiet Leadership: Winning Hearts, Minds and Matches’, Pérez made it clear his annoyance at the change. “Since then, the relationship wasn’t the same,” the 59-year-old said.

Rafa Benítez

Bale was also the root of problems for Ancelotti’s replacement, Rafa Benítez, but on this occasion they came as a result of the coach’s backing for the ex-Tottenham man. Aware of Bale’s importance to Pérez, Benítez arrived at the Bernabéu intent on keeping both player and president sweet. Which is why, that summer, he opted to go and see Bale on Wales duty – a gesture he did not afford Cristiano… His tendency to make Bale the teacher’s pet distanced him from the rest of the squad. He gave the player the number-ten role he had coveted, and in press conferences was sparing in his praise of Cristiano, to the benefit of Bale: “It’s hard to say who’s the best [in the world]. I think that Cristiano, Bale, Benzema and James are up there…” Benítez later backtracked by saying that the Portuguese was the best, but then blundered once more when asked who the best player he had ever coached was: “I can’t say who the best is, because I’ve had a lot of very good footballers.” Benítez’s poor rapport with the rest of the squad, and the 4-0 defeat to Barcelona – which led the Real fans to round on Pérez – sealed his fate.

Zinedine Zidane

In Zidane, Pérez saw an appointment that could ward off the crisis at the Bernabéu, and promoted the Frenchman from his job as boss of Castilla, the club’s ‘B’ team. Like Ancelotti, Zidane also found himself on a collision course with the privileges enjoyed by Bale and, though he initially played ball – allowing himself to be particularly shown up by a decision to starting a clearly unfit Welshman in the Clásico in April 2017 – he finally lost patience. Amid a spate of injuries and mutual displays of antipathy, Zidane demoted Bale. The attacker went from nailed-on starter to bit-part player, Zidane leaving him on the bench for almost all of last season’s major Champions League nights: both legs of the last 16 against Paris Saint-Germain, the first leg of the quarter-final with Juventus, the entirety of the semis against Bayern Munich, and the final against Liverpool (in which Bale ended up coming off the bench to score twice, including a spectacular overhead kick).

Julen Lopetegui

Bale’s headline-grabbing display in Kiev led him to say: “Obviously I was very disappointed not to start the game, I felt like I deserved to … I need to be playing week in, week out and that hasn’t happened this season for some reason or another. I have to sit down with my agent and take it from there.” However, his seemingly-over Bernabéu career took a U-turn with the coach’s surprise resignation (and Cristiano’s departure for Juve). Without the Portugal captain and his 50 goals a season, Zidane’s successor, Lopetegui, needs Bale – and needs him at his best. In recent weeks, however, question marks over his fitness have again resurfaced. His “muscle fatigue” and fear of injuring himself have led him to sit out the past three games – and it’s a setback that would become an all-out affront to club and coach if Bale ignores his employers and finally plays against Spain…