Cristiano Ronaldo vs Gareth Bale is the superstar clash that was made in Madrid… welcome to the duel to be King of Euro 2016
- Gareth Bale is still the challenger to the reining champ Cristiano Ronaldo
- Bale’s displays have increased sense that changing of the guard is closer
- Ronaldo openly admitted last season that he is a better player with Bale
- But there will almost definitely not be an exchange of shirts at full time
The contrast was there right from the start when Gareth Bale met Cristiano Ronaldo in the players’ car park on his first day at Real Madrid in 2013 — one looking a million dollars, the other more like a million pesetas.
The boy from Cardiff did have a Louis Vuitton washbag under one arm but he had a carrier bag under the other, and he was minus the £10,000 wristwatch, £500 sunglasses and the shiny Dolce & Gabbana belt which all decorated the gleaming Ronaldo. It was golden boy meets the boy next door.
On Wednesday evening in Lyon as they meet once more, this time wearing the colours of their respective countries, Ronaldo will still be football’s glistening supermodel and Bale still challenger to the reining champ.
Players such as Marcelo and Rodriguez have, on occasions, seen fit to pick one talisman over the other, sacrificing their relationship with Bale in the process. But Ronaldo has long since taken on board the fact that he is better with Bale than against him.
He may have resented being told by Real Madrid president Florentino Perez, back when Bale first signed, that he should ‘help him become a Balon d’Or’ but last season he publicly admitted, during a period when Bale was out injured, that things were a whole lot easier for him with the Wales star in the side.
Zinedine Zidane has also had a positive impact on the pair’s relationship. Carlo Ancelotti, in his book Quiet Leadership: Winning Hearts, Minds and Matches, revealed earlier this year that when he coached Madrid he was asked by Perez to change Bale’s position to give him a more central starting point and more freedom to roam — the role he has with Wales.
‘I explained to him [Bale] what I had said to the president, that it was impossible for me to change the system as it wasn’t just one position, it was the whole team,’ wrote Ancelotti.
The sub-text of his response was that giving Bale more freedom would potentially limit Ronaldo’s.
Ancelotti’s replacement, Rafa Benitez, was more inclined to accommodate Bale at Ronaldo’s expense, and each player having a coach that put their interests first did not help relations. Zidane, though, has kept everyone happy and been hugely successful.
Bale must still resign himself to Ronaldo dictating the movements of Madrid’s front three. The Portuguese still makes the first run, with Bale and Karim Benzema then filling the spaces vacated, but that is gradually changing and with Ronaldo out of the side during the La Liga run-in it was Bale’s goals and performances that kept Real in the title race.
It makes sense for Bale to have freedom to arrive centrally when no other player in Europe’s top leagues scored as many headers last season. Not even Ronaldo.
After France, Ronaldo will be more aware than ever that winning things next season will be more likely if he works with Bale than against him.
There will be a shake of the hand before the game on Wednesday night, but almost definitely not an exchange of shirts on the final whistle. This is one No 11 jersey that will stay on Bale’s back and will remain in his treasured possessions — too precious to give away.
Last October, Bale climbed off the treatment table in Madrid having missed four matches for his club, to play for his country against Bosnia and Herzegovina as Wales guaranteed qualification to Euro 2016.
Most Real Madrid supporters expected him to then return to Spain and play no part in the dead-rubber against Andorra which was to be little more than a huge party to celebrate Wales’ qualification.
Instead, he stayed and played the full 90 minutes. He was at the heart of the champagne-spraying afterwards and when he returned to Madrid, immediately picked up an injury in the following game.
When he failed to reappear for the second half of their next match with Levante, some fans joked that he had taken an early cut to watch Wales’ Rugby World Cup quarter-final being played that afternoon.
Less amused was Diario AS columnist Tomas Roncero, who raged: ‘You cost 100m euros Gareth, but you preferred to play 90 minutes against Andorra than play for Madrid.’
Ronaldo, meanwhile, had been in a similar position, with Portugal’s second game of the international break also rendered pointless because they had already qualified. But he boarded a jet soon after the first game ended to come back to Madrid.
Bale had put Wales first, his club second. The club, remember, that had broken a world transfer record to sign him, though they denied it so as not to upset the usurped Ronaldo.
But it is not just Bale’s personality that has made it easier for him to take the Wales team on this journey. His football has played a big part too.
Speaking to former Real assistant coach Paul Clement in December 2013, I asked him if he accepted that in signing Bale, Real Madrid had bought a Ronaldo clone. He seemed surprised by the idea, saying: ‘Do you think so?
‘There are similarities because both are good with dead-balls, both are wingers who score an incredible amount of goals, and both are athletes, but I think Gareth plays between the lines more. He’ll come inside and play combinations. He’ll look to slide balls into other players.’
Those qualities have been there for all to see in France. Everyone knows he has explosive power in the final third but he has been happy to build from deep with Aaron Ramsey.
Now the emphasis will be on him to do that even more in the suspended Arsenal man’s absence.
Bale’s selfless football has helped drag Wales forwards but he never dominated to the extent of smothering the team’s other virtues.
The newspaper El Pais said on Sunday: ‘No one thinks of him as just the vanity project/impulse buy of Real Madrid president Perez anymore. They now talk about Bale the footballer, the player who, in a competition as competitive as the European Championship, has been able to put Wales on the map.’
They love a tournament hero at Madrid. They usually buy one after every World Cup and European Championship. This time that might not be necessary — the star of the show is already at home.
Madrid is also the one club in the world where Balon d’Or podium places are valued as much as team trophies so expectations are high that Bale can join Ronaldo in Zurich next January, flanking Leo Messi, whose Copa America failings surely condemns him to watching Ronaldo win the award for the fourth time.
Unless we are closer to Bale dethroning Ronaldo than we realise.
Unless Bale knocks Ronaldo out of Euro 2016 with a performance that lives up to the words of his team-mate Hal Robson-Kanu: ‘Messi and Ronaldo are out of this world but we have Gareth and he is better than both of them.’
Wales are showing that anything is possible and in Madrid it is literally a win-win.