Neil Humphreys: Time for a Bale out, Gareth
Superstar must leave the Bernabeu to save career
Football can be so cruel.
Just when a struggling player hopes for an easy night, he gets whacked over the head with the sledgehammer of symbolism.
Take Gareth Bale.
Real Madrid would be delighted if anyone took Bale.
But no one particularly wants him, not after Wales' 1-0 away defeat by Hungary yesterday morning (Singapore time), not after an incident so drenched in symbolism it belonged in The Da Vinci Code.
Bale missed a sitter. But this wasn't a run-of-the-mill sitter.
This was a gif waiting to happen, a human error destined for endless replays.
At 0-0, Bale lined up a tap-in. He couldn't miss. So of course he missed, scooping a woeful effort straight at the goalkeeper.
The wretched symbolism couldn't have been any less subtle if a caption appeared on screen, proclaiming that "this replay epitomises a declining career".
Just a year ago, Bale celebrated the greatest goal scored in a Champions League final, putting away that extraordinary overhead kick.
Today, he's morphed into a punchline.
Apart from winning four Champions Leagues, a La Liga title and scoring an unforgettable solo goal to beat Barcelona in the 2014 Copa del Rey final, where did it all go wrong, Bale?
And then there's the money, enough money to fill an Abba song.
Bale lives in a rich man's world, beyond the dreams of most footballers employed in an industry awash with cash.
He's got three years left on a contract worth £35 million (S$60.7m) a year.
Even the world's smallest violin wouldn't play a sad song for Bale. And yet, somehow, his predicament feels poignant, as if he's the victim in his own story.
Real Madrid want him off the books. Zinedine Zidane wants nothing to do with him and the fans have turned on him, positioning the Welshman as the greedy embodiment of a lacklustre squad.
Even Wales manager Ryan Giggs appeared perplexed in interviews after a second poor performance from Bale in as many games.
How can the man with everything play as if he has nothing?
Bale offered an answer in a recent BT documentary.
When asked to comment on golfer Rory McIlroy's assertion that an elite sportsman cannot retain that youthful joy of simply playing for fun, Bale agreed.
He lamented the negativity surrounding elite sport. For him, football was literally not a laughing matter any more.
Even his supersub heroics in last year's Champions League final seemed devoid of joy.
Instead of getting lost in the celebrations, he demanded more game time.
But it hasn't happened.
He didn't play a single minute in Real's last three games.
He wasn't even permitted a chance to say goodbye to the Bernabeu in what was likely his final fixture, which was probably for the best.
When he has featured, he's been whistled. From Zidane to the supporters, the lack of gratitude in Madrid seems genuinely unfair.
Bale's brittle body and lengthy absences are well-documented, but his steely determination to recover from the kind of muscle injuries associated with wingers was less publicised.
And Bale usually kept his own counsel, a self-professed loner content to stay home or play golf. Unlike the ebullient Steve McManaman, who remains a popular character around Madrid, Bale's demeanour saw him labelled an aloof foreigner.
It's extraordinary to think that once the break-up happens, Bale won't be missed, despite scoring in two Champions League finals.
And that's assuming the break-up happens.
There's an even sadder scenario, one that lumps Bale in with Mesut Oezil, the overpaid megastars on the downside of stellar careers.
When he joined Real, Bale was expected to succeed Cristiano Ronaldo at the summit.
But the younger man struggled with altitude sickness. Still only 29, his descent has been too steep, too rapid.
Instead of replacing Ronaldo, Bale is at risk of following Winston Bogarde, the infamous Chelsea footballer who saw out his career in the reserves, content to pick up a huge cheque every week.
Bale deserves a more dignified postscript, obviously.
But he's expressed no interest in leaving Real and has 35 million reasons to stay, not to mention the fact that the top clubs in England don't need him and the rest can't afford him.
But he's got to negotiate a severage package, surely, if he wants a more fitting legacy than being bracketed with Bogarde.
The happy-go-lucky kid from Cardiff may be gone. But the man who once took flight to score the perfect Champions League final goal shouldn't fade away on the bench.
Leaving Madrid won't make Bale any richer, but it might just make him happier.