Bale's road to redemption at Real Madrid increasingly hard to navigate

MADRID -- Forty-nine days and one ill-advised flag celebration later, Gareth Bale stepped out onto the Bernabeu pitch.

There had been whistles when his name was read out among the substitutes. There had been whistles when he went to warm up. And there had been whistles when he returned to the bench. This, though, as Bale waited to replace Rodrygo with Real Madrid leading Real Sociedad en route to their 3-1 win, was the first real chance for the fans to make their feelings known.

The Welsh forward had not played for his club since October 5th. An awful lot had happened since then.

Bale's agent Jonathan Barnett had insisted that the "Wales. Golf. Madrid. In that order" message displayed during Wales' Euro 2020 qualification celebrations in Cardiff was aimed at the media, not the club or fans.

But the Bernabeu crowd hadn't got the memo, and the verdict was overwhelming. In Spain, it's called a pitada. Fans do not boo to express their disapproval. They whistle. And these whistles were deafening.

In the press box, journalists hurried to record it on their phones, ready to share on social media. Bale was welcomed onto the pitch by captain Sergio Ramos, his double-handed high five a very public show of support.

In the stands, though, the reaction was different. "Rodrygo, Vini, Lucas, Bale, in that order" read the banner picked out by the television cameras. As the game went on, there were whistles every time Bale went near the ball. There was one complicating factor though: he was playing well.

His moment came in the 73rd minute. Bale received the ball on the right, and the whistles rose again. Then they were drowned out.

Bale's cross found Benzema, the ball dropped to Modric and he fired home Real Madrid's third and final goal.

It's rare that players don't run straight to a goal scorer to celebrate. This time though, Casemiro and Federico Valverde pointedly made straight for Bale rather than Modric.

They enthusiastically embraced him, before making sure their teammates did the same.

There were other moments, too, and there was a growing undercurrent of applause alongside the whistles. Bale flashed a ball across the six-yard box, just unable to find a teammate. In the last minute he toe-poked a shot past goalkeeper Alex Remiro, the ball drifting wide, and there were more cheers, still beneath the whistles, but louder.

That applause is a sign that Bale's situation may be salvageable. But the road back to acceptance and even redemption at the Bernabeu will be hard to navigate.

"I hope [it won't be a problem]," Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane said after the game. "We want our fans with us from beginning to end. But we can't control that. They have the right to do what they want. Bale had a really good 25 minutes."

"This has happened to all the best players" he added. "Now it's happening to Gareth. He got into the game well. It's happened to everyone here, and it will happen to many more. You have to keep working and show it on the pitch."

For much of his six years in Madrid, time on the pitch has been Bale's problem. This outburst of unrest has been a long time coming, a growing discontent orchestrated by a media seeming to delight in each new alleged indiscretion.

There's a feeling -- unfair or not -- that despite the four Champions Leagues, the cup final-winning goals, Bale has never justified his €100 million price tag.

There's exasperation at his injury record. There's frustration at his perceived inability to master the language. And there's the lingering feeling that Bale prioritises country over club, crystallised in that now-infamous flag. In the last month, that discontent has risen to a frenzy, beginning with Bale's injury for Wales in early October.

He did not reappear in Real Madrid training that month, or in the first two weeks of November, only to -- in what newspaper Marca called a 'Miracle in Wales' -- regain full fitness just in time for more international duty.

Then came Bale's admission in Baku last Saturday that he "feels more excitement playing for Wales." After his country's 2-0 win over Hungary in Cardiff on Tuesday came the celebration and the flag.

The Madrid media raged, Marca calling Bale "Disrespectful. Misguided. Ungrateful. In that order."

On Friday, Zidane called on fans to support Bale as "one of our team." And on Saturday night at the Bernabeu came the response. At least Bale's teammates appear to be with him. A highlight of Friday's training session was Mariano Diaz teasing Bale after a miscontrol by mimicking a golf swing.

"People can have their opinions. On the pitch I thought he looked good and focused," Raphael Varane said after the game on Saturday night.

Real keeper Thibaut Courtois said: "Everyone can have their own opinion. He has to give 100% for the team. He came into the game really well, the third goal was a great move between him and Valverde. Now he has to win over the fans."

That focus will be needed if the fans' whistles are to continue, beginning with a return to the Bernabeu on Tuesday as Real Madrid face Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League.