Roll up, roll up… welcome to the last night of the Gareth Bale show.
One of football’s most curious episodes, featuring the Welsh wizard and the world’s most prestigious football club, will draw to an end with this Saturday’s Champions League final.
Gareth Bale in training this week as Carlo Ancelotti (right) considers whether to include him in the Real Madrid squad for this Saturday’s Champions League final against Liverpool
Given Bale’s past heroics in Champions League finals, including his unforgettable overhead kick against Liverpool in 2018, have contributed to Real’s past successes
The Welshman could sign off at Real Madrid by winning his fifth Champions League title
Yet, as Ancelotti ponders his team selection this week, there will be a big part of him tempted to pick Bale given the moments of magic he has produced on this stage in the past.
They include the extra time goal in 2014 that put Real ahead for the first time in their final with city rivals Atletico and the astonishing overhead kick he produced against Liverpool in the 2018 showpiece.
They were the good times for Bale at the Bernabeu. More recently it’s been all injuries and insults – with the fans questioning his loyalty – quite a lot of golf and the Spanish media branding him a ‘parasite’.
Bale has played just 290 minutes of football all season – equivalent to just over three whole games – with only seven of those coming in the Champions League.
He has been sidelined with knee, calf and back injuries, plus a bout of Covid, and has managed only one goal, way back on August 22.
And despite all that, it will occupy Ancelotti’s mind that Bale could potentially be his match-winner against Liverpool at the Stade de France on Saturday night.
Bale on the Valdebebas training ground this week ahead of Saturday night’s final in Paris
Bale was part of the official UEFA media session last week, hinting he may be involved
The 32-year-old is fit again and training, Ancelotti confirmed as much at the weekend. He was part of the official portrait session on the media day at the Valdebebas training ground last week. That may be a hint.
Bale will love where Real are staying – the five-star Auberge du Jeu de Paume in Chantilly – because it has a top class 18-hole golf course next to it.
A place among the Real substitutes is the best Bale can hope for having played so infrequently this season but if Liverpool are winning with, say, 20 minutes to go, maybe Ancelotti will summon him in search of a saviour.
The reception he receives from the travelling Real supporters will be interesting. Bale was spared what was likely to have been a chorus of jeers when left out of the squad for Real’s final league game against Real Betis last Friday.
Things soured when he celebrated Wales’s qualification for Euro 2020 by posing with that infamous ‘Wales. Golf. Madrid. In that order’ flag in November 2019.
Bale and the infamous ‘Wales. Golf. Madrid. In that order’ flag after they reached Euro 2020
He has been criticised for spending too much time on the golf course by Madrid fans
Marca depicted Bale as a ‘parasite’ sucking money out of the club earlier this year
Despite his role in four Champions League triumphs, the perception was that his heart was no longer in it and that Bale was more committed to country than club.
This continued earlier this year when Bale missed Real’s 4-0 Clasico defeat to Barcelona with a knock but was fit enough to start – and score twice – as Wales beat Austria four days later to reach a final play-off match for the World Cup.
Marca mocked Bale up as a ‘parasite’ and claimed he was ‘sucking’ money out of Real with his £550,000-a-week wages while giving little in return.
Bale himself responded by calling Marca’s comments ‘slanderous, derogatory and speculative’.
In between, he was further criticised for covering his eyes with a face mask and using some kind of tube as a makeshift telescope to occupy himself in separate incidents during the many minutes he spent on the subs bench.
So all the good times Bale brought Real in the years immediately after his world record £85m move from Tottenham in 2013 have been overshadowed.
His first season at the Bernabeu saw crucial interventions in the Champions League, including that intervention in the Lisbon final, and a return of 22 goals and 16 assists as he hit the ground running in Spanish football.
There was also the unforgettable moment he sprinted off the pitch to get around Barcelona’s Marc Bartra before scoring the winning goal in the Copa del Rey final.
Bale larks around with a makeshift telescope while sitting on the bench during a game in 2020
In another game, he used a Covid mask as a makeshift eye mask while warming the bench
His next two seasons saw goal returns of 17 and then 19, with the highlight being another Champions League triumph in 2016, when he set up a goal for Sergio Ramos and converted a penalty in the shoot-out win over Atletico.
Bale’s 2016-17 campaign was injury-ravaged but he returned to lift the European Cup in his home city of Cardiff after a 4-1 win over Juventus.
12 months later, he scaled new heights as Real completed a hat-trick of Champions League wins under Zinedine Zidane.
His overhead kick from the edge of the Liverpool box is regarded as one of the greatest of all Champions League goals and he added a second when the hapless Loris Karius fumbled his speculative 40-yarder.
Yet from there, it’s been downhill for Bale at the Bernabeu. The 16 goals he scored while on loan at Tottenham in 2020-21, and his regular vital contributions for Wales, remind us all of his class but it hasn’t been to Real’s benefit.
Bale charges past Marc Bartra on his way to scoring the winner in the 2014 Copa del Rey final
The winger celebrates after netting his sensational winner in the cup final against Barcelona
The Welshman capped his first season with the club by scoring in the Champions League final
Out of contract, his time at Real will come to an end after this weekend and maybe, given a bit of time, their fans will come to remember the positives rather than the negatives from Bale’s nine years with the club.
As Davide Ancelotti, son of Carlo and Real’s assistant coach, said this week: ‘He already gave a lot of trophies to Real Madrid and has a chance to give the club another one.
‘He has written the history of the club because, if you see the pictures of the trophies in the big moments of Real Madrid, there is Gareth and, of course, he will be remembered here.’
What happens next will also be interesting. Bale still has at least another three or four years left at the top level.
Atletico Madrid apparently turned down the opportunity to sign Bale on a free deal and he has been linked with a return to Spurs and also to Major League Soccer in the United States.