Gareth Bale and Philippe Coutinho: relics of a reckless spending policy consigned to history by coronavirus

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Hind Al Soulia - Riyadh - A year ago this week, the European Champions League breathlessly discovered its semi-finalists.

Tottenham Hotspur reached their historic landmark via rollercoaster, overcoming Manchester City thanks to away goals and the kindness of VAR. Liverpool strolled past Porto. Their great comeback, from 3-0 down to Barcelona, was still to come.

Once Tottenham and Liverpool reached the final, both would reflect on how a single piece of business helped them there.

Spurs had spread their biggest ever windfall, the €100m (Dh401.6m) from the sale of Gareth Bale to Real Madrid in 2013, across a number of signings. Not all of them were successes, but Christian Eriksen certainly was.

Liverpool, meanwhile, had spent heavily to upgrade their defence, notably on Alisson Becker and Virgil Van Dijk.

The costs of those two totems had been offset by the sale of one attacking midfielder, Philippe Coutinho, in early 2018, to Barcelona for a fee that, with add-ons, was worth €160m.

Viewed from a confusing, alarming mid-April 2020, Bale and Coutinho look like relics – from an inflationary era now firmly in the past.

When professional sport retakes the stage after the Covid-19 crisis, the €100m-plus transfer fee will no longer be guaranteed feature of almost every transfer window, as it has been since Coutinho joined Bale and Eden Hazard on the long list of Premier League stars who regard moving Madrid or Barcelona as the next step up.

Right now, Madrid and Barca are busy trying to persuade clubs in England, where the top division enjoys relatively stable wealth, to take Bale and Coutinho away and off their wage bills.

Bale is used to it. Madrid have been pushing him to go for the best part of two years. While acknowledging that he was often a brilliant contributor to the club’s run of four Champions League titles between 2014 and 2018, the contract extension he signed in 2016, committing his employers to a salary of almost €30m a year until 2022, has become a uncomfortable drain on resources.

His club form since he electrified the European Cup win over Liverpool in Kiev two years ago has dropped startlingly. In his last 60 matches, Bale has scored 17 goals and set up 10; in his 189 appearances to the end of 2017/18 he had 88 goals and 58 assists.

Coutinho’s story at Barcelona has no rise and fall to it. Things went downhill fast.

The Brazilian, 27, was being booed by sections of the crowd at Camp Nou well before the first anniversary of his signing; his goal against Liverpool in last season’s see-saw Champions League semi-final last turned out to be his last of an unhappy 18 months in a Barcelona jersey.

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Gareth Bale's best moments for Real Madrid

September 2013: Villarreal v Real Madrid – debut goal. After the start to his Real Madrid career was disrupted by injury, Gareth Bale scored his first goal for his new club against Villarreal in a La Liga game at El Madrigal Stadium. Getty

November 2013: Real Madrid v Real Valldolid – the perfect hat-trick. Bale started to realise the demands of Real Madrid fans after being criticised for his display in the Clasico defeat to Barcelona in October. He responded by going on a red-hot run of goalscoring form, which included his first Madrid treble in a 4-0 win over Valladolid. It was a perfect hat-trick, too: left foot, right foot, header. Getty

April 2014: Real Madrid v Barcelona - Copa del Rey final winner. The crowning moment of Bale’s debut season at Real Madrid. With the score level at 1-1, Bale scored one of the greatest goals in Spanish football history, burning Barcelona defender Marc Bartra for pace, sprinting half the pitch, before sliding the ball home for an 85th minute winner. Getty

May 2014: Real Madrid v Atletico Madrid - Champions League final goal. Bale stepped up once again on the biggest of stages. After the Champions League final seemed to be heading to penalties, Bale scored to give Real Madrid a 2-1 lead in extra time. Real went on to win 4-1 and claim their 10th European Cup. Getty

December 2014: Real Madrid v San Lorenzo - Club World Cup final goal. In a season blighted by more injury problems, Bale scored in his third major final for Real Madrid, netting the second in a 2-0 win over San Lorenzo to win the Fifa Club World Cup. Getty

December 2015: Real Madrid v Rayo Vallecano - four-goal haul. Bale produced the most prolific performance of his Real Madrid career when he scored four goals in a 10-2 thrashing of Rayo Vallecano in La Liga. Three weeks later, he scored another hat-trick in a 5-0 win over Deportivo. Getty

May 2018: Real Madrid v Liverpool - Champions League final match-winner. Bale was finding himself increasingly marginalised by Zidane and was among the substitutes for the Champions League final against Liverpool. Called off the bench with the score at 1-1, Bale scored one of the greatest goals in Champions League history with a spectacular overhead kick. He scored again to steer Madrid to a 3-1 win and their third successive European Cup. Getty

December 2018: Fifa Club World Cup - player of the tournament. After the exit of Zidane, Bale resumed a more important role under eventual successor Santiago Solari and was central to Madrid’s Club World Cup triumph in Abu Dhabi. He scored a hat-trick in the semi-final against Kashima Antlers before Madrid beat Al Ain in the final. He was named player of the tournament. Getty

February 2019: Atletico Madrid v Real Madrid - 100th goal. On February 9, 2019 Bale became just the 15th player in Real Madrid’s history to score 100 goals for the club when he struck in a 3-1 win away to city rivals Atletico. Bale has since moved on to 102 goals, placing him 14th on Madrid’s all-time list. Getty

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He joined Bayern Munich on loan last summer, Barcelona relieved his wages – around €24m a year – would be covered by the German club, and hopeful the €8.5m loan fee might become the deposit on a permanent transfer.

Little chance of that. Coutinho has had a few dazzling moments at Bayern, but he is not in their long-term plans. And in nobody’s judgement is he a €150m footballer.

With a recession ahead, and sport counting the hundreds of millions in lost revenue during the closedown, a €150m footballer may no longer exist anywhere.

As Karl-Heiz Rummenigge, Bayern’s executive president, told El Pais: “Even those clubs that have money in the bank are not thinking about going shopping. Every one of them is concentrating on how to survive in these mad times, not pushing the limits with big investments.

"I am convinced that the transfer record that Paris Saint-Germain set buying Neymar [for €222m] will not be overtaken for a very very long time.”

Until the lockdown, Barcelona were presenting themselves as candidates to buy Neymar back.

Within two weeks of the pandemic striking Spain, the club were cutting players salaries by 70 per cent, using a Spanish emergency law designed for companies to stave off bankruptcy.

Barca urgently need to sell, with Coutinho top of the 'availables' list. Chelsea are being courted as possible buyers, but Barcelona know that if they can get even half of what they paid Liverpool for him they will be bucking the trend in the next, very lean transfer window, whenever it eventually opens.

As for Bale, Madrid know that any fee they get for him would be almost nominal. He will be 31 in July.

He has stubbornly resisted a transfer, accepting a substitute’s role in the squad, ignoring the advice of his manager, Zinedine Zidane, that he should leave.

The player knows all the leading clubs in England, outside the top two of Liverpool and City, would put a fit Bale straight into their starting XIs.

He also knows none are ready to match his current salary, at least not for the two years he has left on his Madrid deal.

Updated: April 13, 2020 11:08 AM

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