It’s a team game, but Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale have personal motivations
Euro 2016 semi-finals: Portugal v Wales, Wednesday, 11 pm, Lyon
They are the world’s most expensive player and the man who replaced him as the world’s most expensive player, Real Madrid’s Galacticos and Champions League winners, part of the modern breed of roaming, brilliantly quick goalscoring wingers.
In theory, more unites Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale than divides them. In practice, the Portuguese seems to even regard colleagues as rivals, especially those who could replace him as Real’s flagship player. “There won’t be any love lost on the evening,” said Wales manager Chris Coleman. Ronaldo and Bale’s duel may be fought out over several seasons, with leading-man status at the Bernabeu only one of the prizes on offer for potential Ballon d’Or winners.
In the short term, however, their battle will produce a winner and a loser. The prize for progress is a place in the final of Euro 2016. Much as the younger man has stressed “it’s Portugal versus Wales, no more,” and “it’s not about two players, it is about two nations,” for many it is Ronaldo versus Bale. The presumption for many is that it will be determined by whichever strapping speedster fares better.
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The automatic assumption tended to be that Ronaldo would prevail, therefore. He is half of the dominant duopoly of his generation, with Lionel Messi, and the footballer who has reached the 50-goal barrier in each of his last six seasons. He has arguably the more gifted group of team-mates. He is the man Carlo Ancelotti, rarely given to exaggeration, described in March as “the best forward in the history of football.”
But not the best in Euro 2016. That title may belong with Antoine Griezmann or Dimitri Payet. Or it may reside with Bale. The Welshman has outscored his club colleague in France, despite having far fewer shots. Bale has fired free kicks into the net. Ronaldo has sent them flying high and wide. He has had more touches of the ball and dribbled more. Ronaldo, once the king of the step-overs, now seems to have abandoned solo runs for shooting.
He feels a polarising figure whereas Bale unites. Ronaldo has thrown a microphone into a lake and avoided interviews. The previously shy Bale has given more than usual. He has been endearingly cheeky, open and honest. Ronaldo’s expressions have betrayed touches of paranoia. His attack on Iceland for their defensiveness was self-centred and graceless. Bale has appeared Wales’ selfless superstar, the man who relishes being part of a team, rather than one who acts as if his 10 colleagues are his subordinates. Bale is clearly enjoying Euro 2016. Ronaldo seems to be enduring it, tormented at his inability to attain perfection. He is fighting himself and opponents alike.
If truth be told, both are searching for career-defining achievements, but the pressure is far more visible on Ronaldo’s face. Portugal have never won a major tournament. Wales had never previously reached a semi-final. Bale has been the relaxed history-maker who could yet render his homeland much the smallest European nation to become continental or world champions. It is hard to imagine Ronaldo failed to notice Messi’s international retirement. Unless he rescinds it, his great rival will never claim a major honour for Argentina. Surrounded by lesser players with Portugal, Ronaldo could do something that has eluded Messi.
To do that, however, he must return to his efficient best. “A goals machine,” to quote Jose Mourinho, has failed to score in seven of his last 10 outings for club or country. It is why Portugal’s progress has been so laboured, so tortuous. Wales, and Bale, have been the more dynamic.
They are similar and opposites, equals whose status could be flipped if there is a changing of the pecking order at Real. Bale skipped Ronaldo’s 30th birthday party. He could deny him a celebration Wednesday night, though the Portuguese has never lost to the Welshman.
One whose intense competitiveness has taken him to the top will be even more motivated than usual to preserve that record.