The reluctant galactico who can catch Phil Neal

Real Madrid star Gareth Bale has been keeping a suspiciously low profile in the build up to his team’s Champions League final against Liverpool on Saturday – indicating that his days in Spain could now be numbered.

Under club president Florentino Perez, Madrid’s galacticos are expected to make noise and generate revenues both on and off the pitch. But at the official ‘open media day’ last Tuesday, €101 million man Bale was kept well away from the press pack, while Cristiano Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos and others spent the day doing numerous interviews with different outlets.

Bale only spoke with his club’s official TV station — and that was a quick stilted chat in which he replied in English to questions asked in Spanish. The result was to underline how out of place he can still look in Madrid, even five years after arriving.

Of course there have been happy moments. The softball RMTV interview allowed the former Tottenham player to talk about how Los Blancos have dominated the Champions League in recent years.

“When I came here, I would not have imagined playing four Champions League finals in five years,” Bale said. “Obviously winning three exceeds expectations. I’m looking forward to making it four. Winning titles is the reason I came to this club.”

Should Madrid win on Saturday, Bale will match ex-Liverpool defender Phil Neal as the only Briton with four European Cup winners medals. He has also picked up nine other trophies with Madrid, winning every competition entered at least once, including La Liga and the Copa del Rey. Few British or Irish players in history have enjoyed such success on the continent.

Yet there have always been doubts about how Bale fits at the Bernabeu.

Injuries have restricted his contribution frustratingly regularly, and his individual style of play has irked some teammates, especially dressing-room top-dog Ronaldo. Not all local fans have warmed to him personally, at least in part due to him never speaking Spanish in public.

Introverted by nature, Bale has never cared about building a relationship with the locals. But he has nevertheless always rejected opportunities to return to the Premier League, including when ignoring public entreaties from Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho last summer.

Through the ups and downs, Bale could also rely on firm backing from the Bernabeu hierarchy. Until this season, when he has only started one of Madrid’s six Champions League knockout games, and was then substituted at half-time with the team losing 0-2 at home to Juventus.

The last few months have also brought a clear change in how coach Zinedine Zidane responds to questions about Bale at press conferences.

The Frenchman had previously always protected his player from local critics, but more recently even early May’s fine long-range equaliser in the Clasico at Barcelona brought very muted praise from his manager.

Bale has generally kept his head down and not complained about these changing circumstances. He has spoken in the Bernabeu mixed zone just once all season, when an offhand comment about preferring to watch golf than football on TV brought more local bafflement.

However, on the day of late April’s Champions League semi-final first leg at Bayern Munich, the 28-year-old appeared on the front cover of German sports paper Bild. The interview inside had him saying it was an “honour” to be linked with Bayern, “one of the most successful clubs in Europe”.

The timing was curious, especially as his agent Jonathan Barnett’s Stellar Group had just opened a new office in Munich. That Bild interview also provided an opportunity for Bale to unload what was, for him, quite a pointed protest: “To be honest, I always want more,” he said. “More games and more goals.”

During the final weeks of the La Liga season he did play more, scoring five times in four games. Although it remains unclear if that has secured a starting place against Liverpool tomorrow evening.

Madrid travel to Kiev viewing themselves as big favourites, so a defeat to Jurgen Klopp’s underdogs would surely lead to a dramatic shake-up this summer, with Perez again circling Brazil star Neymar. Even if Bale plays a starring role in a victory for his side, the recent sidelining suggests his time in Spain is coming to a close.

The quiet Welshman was never really cut out to be a galactico, and was presumably happy enough to avoid reporters during this week’s preparations. But if he does leave Madrid now, nobody can blame him for not giving it a go.



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