The last time Gareth Bale had a conversation with Zinedine Zidane it was the first week of May with still three games of last season to be played.
Bale had been summoned to Zidane’s office at the club’s Valdebebas training ground and told that he was not part of the manager’s plans.
That much he already knew because of the pair’s almost non-existent relationship going back more than a year. What was surprising was that he was also told by Zidane that he would not be picked again.
A few days later Zidane was true to his word when he left Bale out of the game against Villarreal.
He then left him out of the last away game of the season and, just to ram home his point, he had him as an unused substitute in the final home match, not even warming up.
With Bale, to Zidane’s displeasure, still at the club at the end of July when Real Madrid played their first friendly of the summer against Bayern Munich the coach had every intention of repeating the scenario of that final home game, leaving him on the bench and not using him.
Bale, anticipating Zidane’s next move, asked to not even get changed and took his seat in the stand.
Zidane said in his post-match press conference that if Bale could leave within the next 24 hours it would be better for everyone. Bale’s agent Jonathan Barnett branded the coach a disgrace for his comments.
The dispute was no longer just about being left out, it was about being treated as a club might treat a no-good troublemaker who had never contributed anything positive to the team, much less won 13 trophies.
Bale’s close friends and representatives are, above all, bemused by Zidane’s attitude towards the player. They insist there has never been any one key incident, just a freezing over of coach-to-player relations. Their fall-out has been called the cold war in Spain.
Bale’s people point out that Zidane was manager in October 2016 when the club gave Bale his contract until 2022.
They now wonder if the relationship has broken down so much that Zidane would rather lose without Bale than win with him. Club president Florentino Perez, it seems, is nowhere near as keen for Bale to leave as his coach is. At least that is the conclusion Bale draws from the fact that his move to China was aborted at the last minute.
The deal — which would have seen Bale off the wage bill but not generate any transfer fee — was not rejected by Perez when it reached him to sign off. Instead he had accepted the terms and then there was a change of mind at the last minute.
Were Madrid calling Bale’s bluff? Hoping he did not really want to move to Asia still only aged 30 and that he would see how Madrid just wanted him gone, then take a pay cut to stay in Europe and move for a transfer fee?
If that was the plan it failed because Bale had accepted the move even to the point of embracing the idea of becoming the new image of the Chinese Super League.
He was ready for a very different sort of challenge but Madrid, or at least Perez, was not ready to lose an asset for free. What happens now? Bale is as uncertain as to what the future holds as anyone else at Real Madrid.
In a text conversation last week I contacted the player’s agents to confirm a story that had surfaced in Spain that he had been playing golf the afternoon Real Madrid were beaten by Tottenham in the Audi Cup in Munich.
Yes, to clear his head, came the reply. The next question was: What’s the strategy? The reply was: To get around the course in as few shots as possible.
A sort of transfer window-style gallows humour.
In the meantime Bale believes he should be in the first team. Zidane could climbdown dramatically or he could leave his position as coach.
The team have conceded 16 goals in five pre-season games, winning only one match in normal time. There are accusations that the team has not improved in any aspect since Zidane came back five months ago.
President Perez considered going back to Jose Mourinho in the middle of last season before eventually opting for Zidane.
Perez maintains a soft spot for Mourinho and while no approach has been made Mourinho’s comments last week that he was not enjoying being out of work, that he still had fire in his belly for a new challenge, and that he was not ready for international management, will not have gone unnoticed.
If Real Madrid sign Paul Pogba it will be a huge vote of confidence for Zidane.
But if Zidane’s No1 transfer request, when he returned to the club last March, goes unheeded then there is a sense that anything is possible.