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Gareth Bale retires a legend

Though he had a tumultuous career at Real Madrid, Gareth Bale should still go down as one of the greatest players in Madrid and British history.

On October 20th, 2010, Tottenham Hotspur visited San Siro to play against the reigning European champions Inter Milan. Traveling Tottenham supporters were ready to head back to London, down 4-0 at halftime and hoping not to get more embarrassed in the second half. That was when a tall, skinny left-back with lightning speed named Gareth Bale announced himself to the world. 

He ended up scoring a hat trick against one of the best defensive teams in the world at the time, with the likes of Javier Zanetti, Walter Samuel, Maicon, and Lucío at the back with Júlio César in goal. Bale scored three identical goals, where he dribbled past players on the left wing before producing unstoppable shots in the corner.

Despite Tottenham losing 4-3, it was one of the biggest days in Bale’s career, who was still only 21 at the time.

He didn’t score in the return leg, but put in an even better performance to help Tottenham beat Inter 3-1 at home. Bale completely embarrassed Maicon, who was considered one of the best right-backs at the time. From then on, the Welshman was permanently converted to a winger, changed his jersey number from 3 to 11, and rose to stardom. 

In the next two seasons, Bale would get better and better. He used his unparalleled athleticism, strength, and pace to bully Premier League defenders on a weekly basis while drawing comparisons with future teammate Cristiano Ronaldo. In the 2012/13 season, he scored 26 goals for Tottenham across all competitions and gathered serious interest from the biggest clubs.

Record move to Real Madrid

Real Madrid pulled the trigger in the summer of 2013, signing Bale to a then-world-record transfer of €100 million, breaking the previous fee paid for Ronaldo. There were concerns about a potential rift between the two players in the Madrid locker room. However, it had the opposite effect. Bale created a dynamic partnership with Ronaldo and Karim Benzema and dominated world fútbol for the next few years.

Everything started out so brilliantly for Bale at Madrid in the beginning. Despite some minor injuries, he was given an automatic spot on the wing and made 44 appearances in all competitions, scoring 22 goals and adding 19 assists. His Copa Del Rey winning goal, where he ran past Marc Bartra after initially being pushed out of bounds, will forever be iconic. In the 2014 Champions League final, Bale played a full 120 minutes and scored in the extra time to make it 2-1. Madrid eventually went on to beat Atlético 4-1 and he became a European champion in his first season in Spain.

It was like a fairytale for Bale. Things just couldn’t have gone any better. And so of course, they didn’t. 

Madrid didn’t have the same success in the following season. And although Bale was healthier and played more games, his numbers went down. 17 goals and 12 assists in 48 appearances are still impressive numbers, but he couldn’t help Madrid capture important trophies, which saw then-manager Carlo Ancelotti fired from the job.

It was also the first time Bale experienced hostility from Madrid fans. After his underwhelming performance, he was booed by fans at the Santiago Bernabéu, and his car was attacked outside of the training ground. It only took two years for him to wear out his welcome. 

Injuries and downfall

The 2015/16 season was the beginning of his nightmares with injuries, making only 31 appearances. Despite that, his stats improved with 19 goals and 14 assists across all competitions. And for a while, it seemed like he fit in better with the pragmatic approach of new manager Zinedine Zidane.

After a fantastic summer where he took Wales to semifinals in their first-ever European Championship, it was expected for Bale to shake off his injuries and continue to dominate under the guidance of Zidane. But things got a lot worse. He struggled with injuries and lost his place in the starting eleven, and ended up only making 27 appearances. He recorded just nine goals and six assists, and only got to play 13 minutes in the Champions League final held in his hometown of Cardiff. 

Fans were starting to boo him more after footage of him playing golf surfaced despite being injured, and he was accused of no longer taking Madrid seriously. 

Things didn’t get much better in the following season, but he did briefly become a hero after scoring an absolute wonder goal in the 2018 Champions League final, where he gave Madrid a 2-1 lead with a bicycle kick. He scored a long-range goal later on to seal the deal and win the club their third successive Champions League trophy. But even that wasn’t enough to salvage his reputation in the capital. 

Never could make Madrid happy

Both Ronaldo and Zidane left the club in the summer of 2018, and it was all setting up for Bale to start over and become a new leader at the club. However, he again failed to step up and struggled with injuries. It didn’t help that he posed with a banner that said “Wales, Golf, Madrid. In that order” or put a mask on his eyes to pretend to sleep during a Madrid game.

Bale returned to Tottenham on loan in the 2020/21 season and actually performed well. Despite the injuries, he delivered in limited game time with sixteen goals and three assists. Unfortunately, they couldn’t find an agreement for a permanent transfer and he returned to Madrid for the 2021/22 season to reunite with Ancelotti.

Madrid ended up winning both the Champions League and La Liga, but Bale only made seven appearances in all competitions, which is his second-lowest tally since becoming a professional player at age 16.

He finally decided to part ways with the club in the summer of 2022 and made a move to LAFC in MLS. Though he didn’t play much at LAFC, he helped the club capture their first ever MLS Cup with a dramatic late equalizer in the final, jumping over 6’6” Jack Elliott to score a goal in the 128th minute. By any measure it’s the greatest goal in club history, and it was the perfect stamp to Bale’s incredible career. 

Retires as a legend for club and country 

Despite all the issues at the end, Bale will still go down as one of the best players to ever play for Madrid. He won sixteen trophies at the club and made 258 appearances with 106 goals and 69 assists. 

He will also go down as his country’s greatest-ever player, appearing in 111 games with 41 goals and 22 assists. Apart from helping Wales reach the semifinals of Euro 2016 and the round of sixteen at Euro 2020, he brought them back to the most recent World Cup for the first time since 1958. 

He may have retired early at the age of 33, but Bale has achieved so much in the game. It’s a shame that he fell out of love with the sport due to numerous injuries and hostility of fans and the Spanish press, but that shouldn’t cloud what he accomplished on the biggest stage.