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Gareth Bale has a golden opportunity to become the face of Real Madrid

ESPN FC's La Liga correspondent Sid Lowe explains what it will take for Gareth Bale to seize the opportunity left by Cristiano Ronaldo's departure.
La Liga ambassador Patrick Kluivert discusses the void left by Cristiano Ronaldo following his departure from Real Madrid to join Juventus.
After Eden Hazard hinted at a Chelsea exit, the FC crew explain why it makes sense for him to join Real Madrid this summer.

Imagine a footballer whom Usain Bolt said was the fastest player in the world. A footballer who scored more headers than anyone else in Europe, but for whom headers are not really his thing. Certainly not his only thing.

Imagine a player who might just have scored the best goal ever in a Copa del Rey final, running all the way off the pitch and all the way back on again to tear through the opposition; a player who might just have scored the best goal ever in a Champions League final, too -- in fact, taking flight to score a breathtaking bicycle kick.

Imagine a player who scored three times -- plus a penalty in a shootout -- in a European Cup final. Two of those goals were the winner; oh, and he provided an assist too. A player who has won four of the past five Champions Leagues and who took his country to the semifinal of the European Championships when, never mind the semifinal, they had never even been at the tournament before.

Imagine that he has scored 83 goals in 147 starts, and that you can add 45 assists to that: in total, 128 goals in which he's been directly involved. Imagine the year before all that, he was voted the Premier League's Player of the Year as well.

All right, so you can imagine, too, that he didn't go to this summer's World Cup, but hey, that might even be a good thing: forget fatigue and late arrivals, forget the "hey, I won the World Cup" attitude that's not always helpful afterwards. Instead, he's been preparing for this all summer, a season to shine.

Imagine that the last time he played, he came on as a sub and scored twice in the European Cup final -- the first player ever to do so -- and left with the trophy and the man of the match award, but he still has a point to prove.

Oh, and about that other stuff: imagine that he's pretty marketable too. He has 35 million followers on Instagram, for what it's worth. And there are plenty who will tell you that's worth a lot. He's the face of many a multinational.

In short, he's the kind of player you might imagine you'd quite like to sign this summer.

If you're Real Madrid, you don't have to. You already have Gareth Bale.

(Some failure, huh?)

What you do have to do is persuade him to stay, but you're pretty confident that you have done that now. And so here he is, an old player who feels a little like a new one. (Which does not mean that they won't try to sign an actual new one as well.)

Now, it might seem a little bit daft to suggest that this could be Bale's season, maybe even the beginning of a bit of an era, when he has already been in Spain for five of them and won 11 trophies, doing all of those things mentioned above, and when he has just scored twice in a European Cup final but, well, it does kind of feel like that.

Not long ago, Bale wondered if the end had come. He wondered if it was better that way. He even said so publicly, on the night when he had done something that no one else had done. Back in the late spring, someone told him that it would go like this. "You know what's going to happen, don't you?" they said. "You're going to come on in the Champions League final and score the winner." He did exactly that, but it didn't entirely make those months worthwhile, those months when he saw no way out of this and that prediction (or should that say promise) was made.

Gareth Bale shouldn't have anything left to prove at Real Madrid but amazingly, he's still not beloved. But that should change this season.
Gareth Bale shouldn't have anything left to prove at Real Madrid, but amazingly, he's still not beloved. But that should change this season.

Bale had been injured, suffering an ankle injury the season before, the gravity of which was not always grasped by those watching him; he had to manage muscular issues too, mostly in his calf. In November 2017, he had a small muscle tear in his groin. It was the 25th time he'd missed games at Madrid for some physical problem or other, although most of those were very nothing significant -- the list, published in much of the Spanish media, included flu, minor strains and the odd knock here and there -- but since Christmas he had felt fully fit. He also felt like he was playing well.

Yet on Valentine's day against Paris Saint-Germain, Bale was left out of the team, and he never made it back in. The only other time he started in Europe, against Juventus, he was pulled off at half-time.

When he played well, like the day he scored two in Las Palmas, the headlines said he was staking a claim for a place in the team, but he knew better, or at least he thought he did. Last season he was running at a goal every 112 minutes, but it didn't make much difference. Sure, he played in the league (a competition already dead to them) but not where it mattered. In the knockout rounds of the Champions League, he played just 99 of 540 minutes.

He didn't ask why he was left out -- what was the point? -- and Zinedine Zidane didn't tell him. Their relationship was virtually non-existent. There was little communication, and a coldness instead. Others at the club didn't entirely understand it, although some had started to give up on him, and Bale certainly didn't. He genuinely wondered why.

Yet it was also true that those playing ahead of him were largely playing pretty well. And it was true that he didn't always play well: those things shouldn't be overlooked. Madrid progressed to the final without him. It felt like he was drifting to the end, too, like few would lament him leaving.

There were even attacks from familiar and significant media sources: the failure to speak Spanish was a stick with which to beat him. Apparently, liking golf a lot was a "Bad Thing" in the eyes of his critics. The tide appeared to have turned against him, patience worn past thin. Some accused him of a lack of commitment. Bale himself knew that.

Then, in the Champions League final, he came on and scored twice. It was a reminder for those who had forgotten -- and it seemed that a large number had. He left Kiev grinning; he also left a message. "I need to be playing week in, week out ,and that's not happened this season for one reason or another," he said. "I had a five- or six-week injury at the start of the season, and I've been fit ever since so now I have to sit down in the summer and discuss it with my agent and take it from there."

By the time he did, things had changed. Zidane walked -- Bale was the only player not to publicly say thanks or goodbye, just as he had been one of the few who did express his sadness when Rafa Benitez was sacked -- and then Cristiano Ronaldo left as well. An analysis of the market and available alternatives played its part and, ultimately, it is Madrid who decide when a player has a €1 billion buy-out clause. But that was not enough.

There were conversations with Madrid about his role. Bale's camp want him to become a more central figure, quite literally. It had happened before -- Benitez had restructured the team to play him just off the striker -- but it had been short-lived. Bale did not want to be out on the wing. Still less, to be just out. Now, under Julen Lopetegui, and with Ronaldo's departure, that becomes a more plausible model and role for him to play. Not a No.10 as such -- at least not in the sense of vision, touch, the final pass in tight spaces or a playmaker -- but given a certain freedom, not obliged to run everywhere and encouraged instead to get into the area. Assurances have been made.

And so at 29, silly though it may sound five years on, this is an opportunity for Bale. The plan is for him to play up front, alongside Karim Benzema. Maybe not to dominate games -- and there is no doubt that there have been matches when he drifted out -- but to decide them.

Isco and Gareth Bale are two of the likeliest candidates to become the new face of Real Madrid.
Isco and Gareth Bale are two of the likeliest candidates to become the new face of Real Madrid.

Extrapolate and expand on his existing stats, and it is not a huge leap to project something extraordinary. Bale got 16 league goals in 26 league games last season, 19 in 23 two years before (when he was also arguably their best player in the Champions League final). Across a full season, it's not unreasonable to take those numbers and see 30-plus league goals.

Much has been made of the search for the 50 goals a season that Ronaldo brought across all competitions. For a start, it doesn't quite work like that, of course, but Bale might be the nearest thing. A reminder of those stats: 83 goals in 147 starts, without taking penalties and without playing in the position he prefers (whether it, rather than the left wing, is where he plays best is a whole new debate), the position where he would be best placed to offer goals.

The problem, of course, is the other half of those stats: 16 in 26, 19 in 23. In other words, not the 83 goals, but the 147 starts. Only 147 starts. In each of the past three leagues seasons there have been at least 12 matches he has not started. The total number of league matches in which he has not been a starter in his five seasons in Spain reads: 12, 19, 15, 7, 11. It is too many. He has played just 53 percent of the minutes for Madrid since joining. It's not enough.

There is something cruel and unfair about the way that injured players are singled out as if they were responsible for their bad luck, but those 25 games missed because of injuries weigh heavily. Some had given up. And then, in Kiev, he flew. Within weeks, others had flown too.

Bale's intention now is to stay; Madrid's intention is the same. He has been injury-free since November, and if he can stay fit, and if it fits together, it is not unreasonable to hope that he can be the player at Madrid: the kind of footballer you might imagine and the kind that at times, big times, he has already been.

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