BARCELONA, Spain — A one-of-a-kind talent who scored incredible goals at the most critical moments, or an aloof loner who cared more about golf than the sport he was paid millions to play?
Real Madrid appeared to have both in Gareth Bale.
Bale ended his seven seasons at Madrid on Saturday when he returned on a season-long loan to Tottenham, the club he left in 2013 to come to Spain.
When he arrived in Madrid for a then-record 100 million euros (then $132 million), his new fans knew Bale as the tall Welshman who could single-handedly win games with his elegant long gait and spectacular goals.
But over the extended stint he spent in the Spanish capital, one of the few things about Bale that Madrid’s supporters discovered was that he loved to get in a round of golf anytime he could slip away to the course.
When he did give the occasional quick interview after a match, Bale always spoke — very politely — in English, never in Spanish, even after seven years in Spain.
Bale was hurt by his repeated problems with injury while with Madrid, where he had stiff competition with other stars.
Madrid’s fans, however, got tired of Bale for not performing up to his potential in many matches. It appeared to many that the weekly grind of games was not as interesting to him as the high-profile finals.
But that apparent reticence to play hard, stay fit and blend in was overlooked by many Madrid fans as long as he kept wowing them on the field.
The image of the indifferent outsider that Bale projected mirrored his best goals. They were produced by moments of individual brilliance from Bale, not from working toward the opposite net with teammates.
His first memorable goal for the club came in the final of the 2014 Copa del Rey against Barcelona in Bale’s debut season under coach Carlo Ancelotti, which proved to be his best.
With Cristiano Ronaldo out with injury, Bale clinched the title in the final minutes when he dribbled down the touchline in an all-out gallop, brushed off Marc Bartra’s shoulder tackle, and poked the ball under goalkeeper José Pinto for a 2-1 win.
A month later came Bale's extra-time header in the 2014 Champions League final in a 4-1 victory over Atlético Madrid. That was his first of four European Cups.
Bale saved his best effort for the 2018 Champions League final against Liverpool, when he came on as a second-half substitute with the score 1-1 and three minutes later lit up the stadium in Kyiv by scoring with an eye-popping bicycle kick. He added another with a second blistering strike from long range that goalkeeper Loris Karius let go in off his hands.
But by that time, he was no longer an indispensable player for coach Zinedine Zidane.
Minutes after scoring what he said was the best goal of his career, Bale complained on television that he was disappointed not to have started against Liverpool and that he wanted to play every week, leaving his future at the club in doubt.
A year later, Zidane went as far as to say that Madrid was close to transferring Bale, adding: “Let’s hope, for everyone’s sake, that it happens soon.”
That move did not materialize, and things soured even more between Bale and his club.
The low point was hit in November 2019 when Bale publicly mocked his club by celebrating Wales’ qualification for the 2020 European Championship behind a banner that read “Wales. Golf. Madrid. In That Order.”
That didn't seem to impress Zidane. Bale made only 20 appearances last season, down from 42 the season before.
Madrid won the Spanish league title in July, but Bale didn't play in the last eight matches of the season — not even a Champions League visit to Manchester City that Madrid lost.
Zidane, however, said on Saturday that he had no hard feelings for Bale.
“I’ve never had any problems with Bale and never has he been a pain,” Zidane said. “He’s done excellently in terms of what he’s achieved here and there should be no discussion about that. He’s won a lot of silverware at Real Madrid.”
The final image of Bale in Spain may be of him in the stands during Madrid's match against Alavés in July, when his team was marching to the title without his help. Bale, banished to the reserves again, leaned back, popped his feet on the top of the seat in front, and pulled his face covering up over his eyes as if he wanted to take a nap.
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Joseph Wilson, The Associated Press