There are no immediate losers from the announcement of Gareth Bale’s move to Tottenham. Zinedine Zidane can breathe a sigh of relief at no longer having to field endless questions about a talent he did not rate, fans can swap the tedium of aimless speculation for the restoration of one of the world’s most potentially thrilling players to regular action, and Bale himself will neither have to grin for the cameras from the bench nor shuffle awkwardly around any future Real Madrid trophy celebrations.
Spurs, however, must fear that they will not emerge from their season-long gamble as winners. Shortly after Bale aggravated Madrid fans and entertained everyone else by posing with his infamous flag declaring that he prioritized Wales and golf over his fading club form, the winger declared Jose Mourinho a “serial winner” whose appointment had been an “amazing statement” by Tottenham – words that, inevitably, have been followed by 10 months in which they have whimpered out of the Champions League and failed to threaten to add to their only trophy this century, the League Cup.
Mourinho’s blockbuster arrival may have paved the way for Bale. A week after Bale’s cherished move to China fell through in July 2019, as doomed former manager Mauricio Pochettino bemoaned his lack of transfer influence at Tottenham after watching his side beat Real Madrid in a friendly, the chances of Spurs signing a galactico seemed as remote as Bale’s had been of featuring in the opposition squad that day.
Little more than a year later, with notoriously hard-headed chairman Daniel Levy lauding Mourinho as one of the best in the business, Spurs have made a signing that appears almost a once-in-a-decade transfer in terms of their established approach to business.
From a neutral perspective, the idea of Bale and his direct running, taste for shooting from distance and knack of dramatic goals is a tantalizing addition to the Premier League, even if his renaissance does not become as much of a masterpiece as his 26-goal previous campaign with Spurs was.
For the club, it arguably represents a significant change of ethos and an unusually loaded outlay within the context of the guarded Levy tactics that Pochettino would attest to.
Before his schism with the owner became abundantly clear, Pochettino had seemed to praise Spurs by calling them “brave” for making no summers signings in 2018, becoming the first club to do so since the English transfer windows were introduced 15 years earlier.
The idea looked like a show of confidence in youth and a commitment to the squad who would reach the Champions League final, as well as a bold act of symbolism to show Tottenham’s rivals the follies of constant spending.
Instead, the club chose to concentrate on the $1.27 billion Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and the dazzling Lodge training complex, later taking out a $221.5 million government loan in a purported bid to help ease the impact of those costs, fueled by fears of losing $253 million in the next financial year as a result of the pandemic.
Now Levy, seemingly dazzled by a manager used to the riches afforded by his previous roles at Madrid, Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea and England’s richest football club in Manchester United, appears to have dispensed with his own rulebook and any worrisome warnings from the banks.
As well as the sizeable loan fee of more than $25 million, much has been made of Bale’s $760,000-a-week wages at Real and the fact that Spurs will be paying him far more than current top earner Harry Kane, even with Real’s reported contribution of half of the bill.
Beyond the outlandish breach of their pay structure, Bale is the oldest outfield player Tottenham have signed in more than ten years and only the second non-goalkeeper over 30 to join the club since 2011.
All of which, even without the high drama of the Amazon documentary that has turned talk of a soap opera into a reality, makes the club appear firmly in the realms of more statement territory.
The trouble, as Levy may find should Mourinho’s reign continue on its unconvincing path, is that forking out premium prices on players and coaches whose best achievements are an increasingly distant memory simply heightens the stakes.
Bale has won more European trophies in five years than Tottenham have in 138. Perhaps even more than Mourinho, he might reasonably claim that he does not need to prove himself. Yet his career since his exhilarating goals from the bench in the 2018 Champions League final means that is exactly what he has to do.
Tottenham need the 31-year-old to reach match fitness quickly and show that he still has the zip and power to play a starring role in a league that is more intense and competitive than La Liga. Those who have watched him continue to drive a promising yet limited Wales side would expect him to perform well against a challenge he looks energized by.
For those with a casual intrigue in how this Hollywood move plays out, Bale’s return is likely to deliver moments of brilliance. On the other hand, his new supporters must know that even a prolonged rediscovery of his best days at the club would still be unlikely to turn their patchily good also-rans into contenders against the best.
Trophy talk aside, a major part of the attraction is the game-to-game air of mystery. No-one really knows what Bale is now consistently capable of at the highest level. If it might not end in commensurate returns for Levy, that anticipation alone adds sparkle to Spurs.
By Ben Miller