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Bale’s Tottenham return has been a nightmare. Is there still time for a winning ending?

The Gareth Bale story has become sad, and even a little embarrassing. After getting away from Real Madrid on loan in the 2020 “summer” transfer window, his bold comeback at Spurs has turned into the non-event of the season.

Once regarded as arguably one of the top five players in the world, he has started only two games and played a meagre 230 minutes in the Premier League all season. His latest appearance saw him hooked just after the hour mark in a limp display at Brighton. Even when Spurs were trailing against Chelsea in their next match, crying out for attacking menace, manager Jose Mourinho left Bale on the bench. And that is where he stayed on Sunday, looking a little forlorn in sub-zero temperatures, as he watched his teammates beat West Bromwich Albion.

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Mourinho has even become tetchy when the subject is raised, telling one reporter “you don’t deserve an answer” and then, rather cryptically, remarking that “everyone is doing their best.” But, of course, this is nothing like Bale’s best. And with Spurs paying a big chunk of his wages (around £200,000 per week) someone worked out that he’s costing the North London club roughly £32,000 per touch of the ball in the Premier League.

On the basis of performances, there’s seemingly no chance that Spurs would have any interest in making the deal permanent. This would present a major problem for Real Madrid because he would return as a non-European Union player after Brexit, and the Spanish clubs are only allowed three such players.

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It was never meant to be like this. Remember back in the autumn, when Bale’s loan signing from Real Madrid set pulses racing in North London? Could he form a lethal attacking trio alongside Harry Kane and Heung-Min Son to help Spurs claim their first trophy since the 2007-08 League Cup? The other two have done their bit, of course, with a combined 37 goals between them, but only once have they started alongside Bale… and that was three months ago at West Brom.

Tottenham fans had been dreaming that they might see a revival of the young star who terrorised defences all over England with his Olympian speed, devastating crosses and nose for goal — after all, he managed 26 in his final season when he was named Player of the Year for a second time. Having been purchased for £5 million from Southampton in 2007, he was sold to Real Madrid for £85m in 2013 and proceeded to win 13 trophies including four Champions League titles and two La Liga crowns, scoring some memorable goals along the way. Remember, too, the brilliant goal against Barcelona in the Copa Del Rey Final when he made a detour off the pitch and sprinted beyond a helpless Marc Bartra before finishing a quite stunning solo effort.

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At the European Championships in 2016, he led from the front and inspired Wales to a place in the semifinals, no small feat given Wales had never qualified for the Euros before. Then injuries mounted up and coach Zinedine Zidane made it clear that the Welshman was no part of his plans in Madrid. Real fans cruelly labelled him “the golfer,” given his love for the sport; the fact that his Spanish was very limited did not help either.

When he moved back to Spurs on Sept. 19, his agent Jonathan Barnett said: “I hope he will get some happiness back in his life.” Except that has not really happened, and it is a shame.

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Bale is a likable and decent man and, by all accounts, a genial presence at the training ground, where he has helped his fellow Welshman Joe Rodon to settle in after his move from Swansea. His early failures to make the Tottenham team could be explained by the fact that he was on a programme to rebuild his fitness after injuries and a prolonged lack of game time in Madrid. But that period is long gone. Putting it bluntly, Bale is not being selected now because the manager does not feel he’s the right man for the job. So he finds himself behind Son, Stephen Bergwijn, Eric Lamela and Lucas Moura in the pecking order.

Mourinho says the problem is “complex,” which perhaps hints at a crisis of confidence or even self-belief caused by disillusionment from his time cast into the shadows at the Bernabeu. No one is really saying. Perhaps it’s unfair to wonder about whether this magnificent athlete has perhaps lost his appetite, but the question is relevant given that he appeared happy to go and play in China at the age of 30.

It’s possible that another European Championship campaign this summer will restart the engines: Wales have been handed a tough, but manageable group with Italy, Turkey and Switzerland. He seems at his happiest and most motivated when performing with that Welsh dragon on his chest.

Ultimate, the hope remains that someone can relight the fires for Gareth Bale. He has been too good and achieved too much for his career to fade away like this.

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