Gareth Bale gets asked the question so frequently, his reply by now is simply to smile. Where will his next move take him? He likes to keep everyone guessing.
The 32-year-old is out of contract and available on a free transfer following the end of his nine-year stay at Real Madrid, where he won five Champions League and three La Liga titles, scoring more than 100 goals along the way.
The relationship soured, though. Having barely featured for Real during his final season in Spain, Bale does not leave the Bernabeu with the status he held upon his arrival as the world’s most expensive player in 2013.
The Wales captain may no longer be regarded among the world’s best five or so players – as he once was – but he will have plenty of offers this summer.
As Wales qualified for their first World Cup in 64 years, Bale demonstrated he still has the quality and temperament to deliver when it matters most.
Now he must decide where he will play his club football, to ensure he is in peak condition when the World Cup starts in Qatar in November.
- Bale does not rule out Cardiff move
- Bale move to Cardiff would make sense, says Page
Moving home to Cardiff?
He couldn’t, could he? Well, Bale himself is not ruling out a move to the city where he was born and raised.
At first glance, it seems nonsensical: a five-time Champions League winner dropping down to the Championship; a global superstar leaving behind a £600,000 per-week contract to join a club which spends less on its entire first-team squad in a week.
But speaking to those close to Bale, it is clear money is not the most important factor here. This is all about being fit for Wales’ World Cup campaign.
Cardiff share a training ground with the Football Association of Wales, which would allow Bale to continue working closely with Wales’ medical and fitness staff.
His family still live in the Welsh capital, and then there is the theory that Bale might be able to be more selective with which games he plays for Cardiff – as opposed to a Premier League team – in preparation for the World Cup.
Wales manager Robert Page says “it makes a lot of sense”, while Bale’s former Wales team-mate Joe Ledley agrees.
“We would all love to see him back at Cardiff, being a Cardiff boy with all of his friends and family here,” the ex-Bluebirds midfielder told BBC Match of the Day Wales.
“The Championship is a difficult league to be in, playing Saturday, Tuesday, it’s a lot of football. I believe he can still play in the Premier League but I would love to see him at Cardiff.”
A warning against the ‘gruelling’ Championship
As Page suggests, the Cardiff move makes more sense than it might first appear – but, for others, the issue is simply: can you really see Gareth Bale playing in the Championship?
The second tier is more refined than it was once was. Teams such as Fulham and Norwich have earned promotion as title winners in recent seasons by playing attractive, attacking football.
There remains a rugged edge, however, and some Wales followers are concerned that Bale would come in for rough treatment if he joined Cardiff.
One man who knows all about the demands of the Championship is Tony Pulis, whose former Stoke City side won promotion from the division in 2008.
“I wouldn’t advise him to drop to the Championship,” the ex-Crystal Palace and West Brom boss told BBC Match of the Day Wales.
“It’s a gruelling experience. You’re playing three games a week on a regular basis and I don’t think Gareth needs that.
“There will be options there for him to go to the Premier League. If he goes to a Premier League club, clubs might use him as someone to bring on to change games. He’s still a game-changer at the top, top level.
“He certainly doesn’t need the money and the issue isn’t the money, it’s what’s going to be the best for him as an individual to see him through to the World Cup in the best condition he could possibly be in.”
‘He can still definitely produce in the Premier League’
Pulis, Ledley, Page and seemingly anyone who is asked seems to agree: Bale is still good enough to play in the Premier League.
He returned to Tottenham on loan for the majority of the 2020-21 season and, although he was in and out of the team, his 16 goals were a reminder of his enduring threat.
Spurs have reportedly cooled their interest in a potential third spell for Bale – though managing director of football Fabio Paratici is thought to still be monitoring his situation – but there are other possible Premier League destinations for the former Southampton man.
Newcastle will be expected to spend heavily as they prepare for their first full season under their Saudi ownership, while Aston Villa have made some eye-catching acquisitions – Philippe Coutinho among them – with Steven Gerrard in charge.
Nottingham Forest’s Welsh boss Steve Cooper is also understood to be keeping an eye on Bale’s situation.
“With his quality he can still definitely produce it in the Premier League,” Bale’s former Wales captain Ashley Williams said.
“I’m sure he’s got an idea of where he wants to go.”
MLS and other foreign destinations
Having spent nine years at Real Madrid, Bale was improbably linked to another club from the Spanish capital when Getafe’s president claimed that he had been offered the player.
When Bale was asked about his future soon afterwards, however, he said with a laugh: “I’m not going to Getafe, that’s for sure.”
A move to a Major League Soccer team in the United States would appear more plausible, with Wayne Rooney’s former side DC United among those linked.
The money and lifestyle on offer would appeal, though it would be less convenient for Bale’s family life and Wales commitments.
That is partly why he is unlikely to travel further afield. Bale was close to joining Chinese Super League club Jiangsu Suning on a contract worth a reported £1m per week back in 2019, but China’s top flight does not wield the same financial power these days.
All those factors point to a move closer to home, though Bale will continue to assess his options before making a decision.
One thing that does seem certain is that he will not be retiring – not for now at least.
Before this month’s World Cup play-off final, there had been speculation that Bale would call time on his glittering career if Wales failed to qualify.
He faced similar questions in the build-up to – and aftermath of – last year’s delayed Euro 2020, without categorically denying on either occasion that retirement was a possibility.
But as Wales have qualified for their first World Cup since 1958, there is no way Bale is stopping now.
“I was thinking the Saturday evening [before the Ukraine game], maybe he thought: ‘I might not be a professional football player in 24 hours if we don’t win this game’,” said Williams.
“It’s so nice that isn’t the case.”