The biggest Chinese challenge for Gareth Bale is himself
Gareth Bale is heading to the Chinese Super League having agreed a three-year deal with Jiangsu Suning FC that will make him the highest-paid player in the history of the game.
There is dark humour in the fact that he leaves Real Madrid on the back of an incredible 7-3 friendly defeat to city rivals Atlético in New Jersey. Bale made an appearance from the substitutes bench, but could not prevent Zinedine Zidane's side suffering an embarrassing reverse.
Kings of Europe
Real Madrid will forever hold a special place in the career of Gareth Bale. He arrived as the world's most-expensive player, and during his six seasons at the Santiago Bernabéu, he collected four UEFA Champions League winner's medals.
Bale's best period at Real Madrid coincided with success for Wales, and he was the talismanic figure that guided Chris Coleman's side to the semi-finals of UEFA EURO 2016. But things quickly changed, and as his increasing injury problems were compensated only by sporadic moments of brilliance as his general contribution became more and more limited.
The return of Zidane as Real Madrid manager last season marked the end for Bale. A public disagreement over his restricted opportunities followed the Champions League final success of 2018. Bale using his high stock from scoring twice in the final to make his point, and Zidane departed by his own accord.
Meanwhile, Wales failed to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, and Bale cut a frustrated figure for club and country as he continually struggled with injuries and form. Having recently turned 30, Bale now appears a different character on the field, despite shielding his frustration with his media persona off it.
There is a clear link between the mentality of a player and the injuries that they suffer, and it becomes a vicious psychological circle. Bale has missed a lot of football over the last couple of years, and he has struggled to establish himself in the Real Madrid team as a result. His lack of a positive contribution turning the Madridistas against him.
Bale is no stranger to being seen as the scapegoat at the Santiago Bernabéu, and criticism in the Spanish press as seen him collect more negative headlines than other players in La Liga over the last six years. His future has remained a constant topic of speculation almost since his arrival, and he will be missed by the Spanish media that have caused so much damage to his profile.
Bale has not played consistently well for Real Madrid or Wales for the best part of the last two years. He clearly has not enjoyed his football, and it has become increasingly clear that his career peaked in the summer of 2016 when he lifted the Champions League trophy and inspired Wales to unparalleled success in France.
Since then, Bale has fallen out of love with football, and the biggest challenge for him in China now is to get that back. It will take a lot of soul-searching and internal reflection, but the dirty side of the professional game at the very highest-level has clearly taken its toll on Bale.
The good, the bad and the ugly
If he cannot rediscover his passion, he will see his reported salary as a way of exacting revenge against the professional game. Football has been his life since he was a child, but there is an ugly side to the sport that hides behind the colourful media image, and Bale has experienced the good and the bad.
Many will see his transfer to the Chinese Super League as confirmation that Bale is selling his career to the highest bidder. It is a fair judgement given the reported figures involved, but there may be more to the move than is immediately apparent.
Wales competed at the China Cup in March 2018. In the opening match against the host nation, Bale scored a hat-trick in the 6-0 win to become Wales' record goalscorer. Despite his goals coming against China, each goal was celebrated wildly by the Chinese fans in attendance, and it reflected popularity that continued throughout the course of the mini-tournament.
His reception will be similar when he arrives at Jiangsu Suning, and the support he will receive from the Chinese fans and media will be the complete opposite to what he has been subjected to in Madrid. He will be provided with a platform to shine, enjoy his football again, and bask in the glory that will inevitably follow given the general standard of defending in the CSL.
One concern for high-profile players arriving in the CSL has been adapting to the quality of their team-mates. However, Bale has been a similar situation with Wales in the past, and thrived in the responsibility that has handed to him in. Rather than cut an isolated and frustrated figure, Bale worked for the greater good, and he will need to do the same at Jiangsu Suning.
But the biggest challenge for Bale will be to rediscover the same passion, desire and commitment to the game that enabled him to make the grade as a teenager at Southampton back in 2005. Without that, China will be nothing but a long and lonely adventure for him and his young family.
Exiting the toxic environment of the Santiago Bernabéu is the first step in Bale's career redemption. China offers a break from the intense attention on Europe's major leagues, and his decision seems based on his own need to find peace with the game that appears to have made him and broken him in equal measure.
Golf has replaced that passion in the interim, but he will be a long-time retired once his career does come to an end, and now is not the time to focus on the fairways. Bale deserves to be remembered by the football world for all the right reasons.
Being free of the shackles of Real Madrid will make this possible, providing not too much internal, psychological damage has already been done. Many arrive at the Santiago Bernabéu as heroes, but few leave with the same status. That chapter is now closed, but Bale's story is far from over.