The two most expensive players in football go head-to-head on Wednesday when Cristiano Ronaldo leads Portugal against club teammate Gareth Bale and Wales in a Euro 2016 semi-final which could lead one to unprecedented glory.
Bale is junior partner when the two line up for Real Madrid, despite winning two Champions Leagues in three years since arriving in Spain for a world record fee to team up with Ronaldo.
However, his performances and three goals in France in leading Wales to their first semi-final in a major tournament, allied to his starring role at the end of Madrid’s season, suggest Bale at 26 is in line to take over from Ronaldo now 31.
The key to Bale’s and Wales’ success has been built upon a remarkable unity which their star man fosters.
“With our team spirit, it’s like being with your mates on holiday,” said Bale last week, clearly more at ease with the joviality in the Wales camp than the pressure cooker Madrid dressing room.
“Together stronger” has been the motto of Wales’ historic campaign. A unity captured perfectly in the goal that kick started their run after Bale smashed a free-kick into the Slovakia net just 10 minutes into their first match at a major tournament for 58 years.
With much hype and the expectations of a nation resting on his shoulders, Bale wheeled away in celebration and headed straight into a pack of adoring teammates and coaching staff by the Wales bench.
“Balo is just a nice guy, a nice human being, a family guy. He’s livelier on the pitch than off it because he doesn’t say a lot. He’s very much one of the lads. He’s quiet, unassuming — that’s just his personality,” said Wales boss Chris Coleman.
“He has matured a bit more as he has got older, but he has always been the same person really – very quiet and it doesn’t float his boat all the attention he gets.”
Despite the quiet nature, Coleman insists that Bale is a leader in his own right by setting standards for his teammates to match.
“He could be a little bit more demanding because of his game. But that’s why he has got so much respect of the players because he’s not like that.
“They automatically want to gravitate that way to where he is. And that’s how it should be, you know. It’s not bringing him down to where we are, and myself included, because he is a special talent.”
– Ballon d’Or in play –
Ronaldo’s road to a third Euros semi-final has been more testing.
Frustrated by Iceland in an opening 1-1 draw, the three-time world player of the year lashed out at the Atlantic islanders’ “small mentality” — an outburst at odds with the widespread fondness for Iceland’s fairytale run.
A missed penalty against Austria was papered over by a double against Hungary, which saw him become the first player to score at four European Championship finals.
Ronaldo has subsequently been kept quiet by both Croatia and Poland in the knockout stage, but will still never have a better chance to cap a glorious career with a maiden international triumph as Portugal have progressed to the last four without winning a match in 90 minutes.
“I’ve always said, and I don’t hide it, that I would love to win a title with the national team. We’re on the right road,” he said after squeezing past the Poles on penalties.
However, Ronaldo will also have his eyes on the individual prize when facing Bale in Lyon.
With both having contributed to Madrid’s 11th European Cup win in May — and hot on the heels of Lionel Messi’s retirement from international football — whoever emerges victorious from Ronaldo and Bale’s personal duel will be favourite to win the Ballon d’Or as the world’s best player for 2016.
“Ronaldo is a cannibal. He wants it all. Even in a situation where it seems so difficult to focus on the personal objective like this, he doesn’t lose sight of achieving it,” said Madrid sports daily Marca on Sunday.
“He is not just playing for the first (tournament win for Portugal), but also his fourth (Balon d’Or).”
By contrast, Coleman insists a Zurich gala in January will be the furthest thing from Bale’s mind in Lyon.
“I don’t think that is in Gareth’s head. Of course he’s a human being. Thoughts will run through his mind, but he’ll be thinking about how we perform in the next game and nothing beyond that.”