After nine years at Real Madrid and fresh from helping Wales qualify for their first World Cup since 1958, Gareth Bale is available on a free transfer.
There have been links to another Tottenham Hotspur return MLS teams across the Atlantic and his hometown club, Cardiff City of the Championship. Where will he end up? Or should he just retire from club football altogether?
The Athletic writers put forward the case for the various options open to Bale before the World Cup in November and December.
Why not consider a second return to Tottenham? Yes, Bale came back for the 2020-21 season on loan, but that did not turn out as many would have hoped. It took him months to get the run in the team he needed to get fit. And when he did get a foothold in the side, it was already locked in the Jose Mourinho doom-spiral, so his contributions ultimately counted for little. And worst of all, almost all of it took place in empty stadiums.
If Daniel Levy signed Bale to parade him in front of a full crowd approaching double the size of the ones who adored him before his move to Real Madrid, then he never got that moment. So, as unlikely as it might be, why not try again this year?
Those fans would love to see him in a Spurs shirt again, and while he would not be a starter if he joined for a third spell, he could still be a high-end back-up for Son Heung-minplaying only when needed.
Who knows whether Antonio Conte would want him, or whether the financial numbers would line up, but Conte has been nothing if not vocal about wanting to add experienced winners to his squad.
The first time Bale came back never felt quite right.
Maybe a second return could be different?
Although Bale had an up and down nine years as a Real Madrid player, the Welshman and his young family have been very happy in the Spanish capital, enjoying the climate, lifestyle and privacy.
Returning to the UK would be a hassle, for many reasons, but Getafe’s Coliseum Alfonso Perez is just a 15-minute drive from Bale’s house in Madrid’s western suburbs.
Bale also has happy memories of playing at the Coliseum — scoring there in a 3-0 win in 2014-15, and bagging another in a 5-1 victory the following season. The squad at Getafe is also quite similar to Wales’ one, with lots of honest battlers who would give him the freedom and responsibility to make a difference up front.
Some financial sacrifices would be required, as Bale’s wages (including taxes) last season were more than half of Getafe’s total club budget of just over €60 million.
Yet there would be a priceless opportunity to prove some points to Madrid’s fans and pundits next season — something to help keep Bale focused while he waits for the World Cup to start.
Bale has enjoyed a glittering football career. Five Champions League winners’ medals, three Spanish league titles and a Copa del Rey. He is the most successful British player in the history of the European Cup/Champions League — does he really need any more silverware?
Surely the time is right to make an emotional move to his hometown club, Cardiff, who his uncle Chris Pike played for in the 1990s. OK, the Championship is a sizeable step down from Real Madrid but he would be guaranteed game time under former international team-mate Steve Morison and the club from the Welsh capital handily share a training ground with the national team.
It’s the only team he could sign for where the fans would not even resent him taking it easy in the lead-up to the tournament, perhaps even giving him the luxury of a mini-break before it kicks off. As Wales boss Robert Page said, it is a move that “ticks all the boxes”.
Bale would need to take a hefty hit on the £600,000-a-week salary he was on in Madrid (more than the weekly wage bill of Cardiff’s whole first-team squad) but his agent Jonathan Barnett has already said “money is not important to his client.
“Finance will not come into this,” he explained. “He’s already extremely wealthy. It will be down to where he wants to play, a personal choice.”
A move to Cardiff also offers easy access to the two bars he owns in the city centre.
Golf? That’s covered with the mini-course he built in the garden of his mansion a few miles west of the city.
So come home, Gareth. The time is right.
What’s left for Bale to achieve in European football? He played a significant role in four of those five Champions League triumphs during his time in Madrid, led Wales to the semi-finals at Euro 2016, to the knockout phase of Euro 2020, and now helped end his country’s 64-year wait for a World Cup.
If another player had achieved half of what he has, they’d still have enjoyed a very successful career.
Yet despite his achievements, there’s still a sense he is underappreciated. A move to the US would present him with an opportunity to end his career adored by whichever MLS franchise wishes to give him what would presumably be one last big payday.
And with more than 9,000 golf courses in America, he’ll have plenty of time to enjoy his favorite hobby.
On Sunday, Bale was part of a team that wore red, managed by a Welshman, featuring Brennan Johnson, who benefitted from some iffy refereeing to win a play-off game 1-0 thanks to an own-goal.
If all that wasn’t a sign that he should join the other team to achieve all that, seven days earlier, then what is?
Nottingham Forest will be in the Premier League next season for the first time in 23 years, and although they have a promising team filled with terrific young players, they don’t have a star.
What they do have is an owner, in Evangelos Marinakis, who has made clear he wants to make a splash. Enter Bale.
There will be little to no pressure on Bale at Forest, he can benefit from the warm man-management of countryman Steve Cooper and build up a better understanding with Johnson, who if he continues his current developmental arc should be a shoo-in for a Wales starting spot by the time their World Cup opener against the US on November 21 rolls around.
The circumstances are different, but Bale might be swayed by how things went for Christian Eriksen after he joined a newly-promoted side last season. Eriksen was both superb and unconditionally loved at Brentfordand while Bale has shown he isn’t excessively bothered about the adoration of his fans at club level, it might be nice to play in front of home supporters who don’t actively hate him for a few months.
Retire from club football
Bale should pack in club football.
There might be a couple of romantic options (hometown club Cardiff, boyhood club Southamptonsome opportunists hoping to use his residual star value to propel themselves upwardsWest Ham, NewcastleMLS) or some potentially underwhelming, ill-advised final chapters (Tottenham, Manchester United) but the genuinely coolest thing for him to do would be to implicitly declare himself a full-time international footballer, and go to the World Cup as a truly unattached player (and not just someone whose contract happened to expire during the tournament, as we ‘ve seen when it is played in its traditional summer slot), with no motivation to “put himself in the shop window”.
What domestic — or even European — fixture could possibly compare now to leading Wales out at their first World Cup since the creation of NASA, the commercial production of the hula hoop and the invention of instant noodles?
Rain, meet parade. The prosaic truth is that Newcastle United should not and will not sign Bale. An aging former Galactico on too much money is precisely the kind of message the club’s new ownership is looking to avoid. Their squad is already too old and in need of a refresh and, for as long as possible, they want to maintain the wage/spirit balance that served Eddie Howe’s squad so well post-January.
Unless, of course, Gareth fancies a hefty pay cut and one last domestic challenge — a bridging of eras at St James’ Park…
After all, Newcastle’s modern history is built on a similar kind of transfer.
When Kevin Keegan stunned the game by signing in 1982, he was a former European Cup winner and current international in his early 30s. He delivered, leading the team to promotion and then retiring. But that ending was also a beginning; eight years later, having dedicated himself to Spanish golf courses, he returned to St James’ as manager, again out of the blue, and, pretty soon, Newcastle were challenging at the top of the table.
See where I’m going with this? Wales, golf, Newcastle… in CHRONOLOGICAL order.
Get the team into Europe, have some fun, come back later to the dugout.
And this time, for god’s sake, win something.
(Top photo: Geoff Caddick/AFP via Getty Images)