Titanic clash more than a showdown between Bale and Ronaldo
Talisman Bale relishes his role as charismatic leader of the fearless Welsh Dragons
For those who knew Gareth Bale when he was a 16-year-old at Southampton, living with his fellow scholars in the club's digs at Darwin Lodge, he was a wind-up merchant, always smiling, one of the boys. It is a side to him that has been camouflaged. Bale's public persona has long been synonymous with playing it straight and keeping his feelings under wraps. Until now.
One of the stand-out features of Wales's exhilarating run to the Euro 2016 semi-finals, in which they will face Portugal in Lyon on Wednesday night, has been Bale's coming-of-age as a charismatic leader. There were the tongue-in-cheek jibes at England before the group-stage match, which were aimed at seeing whether anyone would bite, while also projecting Welsh confidence, and there was even the remark before Friday night's famous quarter-final victory over Belgium, when he mused about his country's positive recent record against them.
Bale is enjoying himself, perhaps as never before, and it has shown. When he strode out for the pre-Belgium walkabout at Lille's Stade Pierre Mauroy to get a feel of the turf, he was smiling broadly.
The 26-year-old was a man at ease with himself, in control and, for his opponents, it was an intimidating sight. It has not simply been about what Bale has delivered at this championship, in terms of his three goals, the dribbles and the chances he has created. It has been about how he has inspired his team-mates and frightened his rivals.
His path is now blocked by a familiar face - the Portugal captain, Cristiano Ronaldo, who has been his Real Madrid team-mate for the past three seasons, and it is clear that their confrontation will frame the tie. The questions have already started. In the heady aftermath of the 3-1 win over Belgium, which must surely rank as Wales' finest moment on the football field, Bale was asked by a Portuguese journalist about what it would be like "to face Cristiano".
"It's Portugal versus Wales, no more," Bale replied. The next question came from another Portuguese voice: "What can we expect from your clash with Ronaldo?" Bale laughed. "I've just said it's Wales versus Portugal, nothing more."
The audience half-expected another one to follow. It did not. But there will be more - phrased in every which way and digging for any sort of detail. Bale has played it this way for now, and it will be interesting to see whether he opens up on his relationship with Ronaldo over the next few days. It is what many people want to hear. It has been suggested in some circles that the two do not get on and there was a fuss made in Spain, for example, when Bale did not attend Ronaldo's 30th birthday party in February of last year. All of the Real players were invited and Bale was not the only one to give it a swerve.
The truth is that Bale is not a guy who likes to go to glitzy bashes and, moreover, he cannot be pressured into doing anything he does not want to do. He merely wants to enjoy his football and be a family man. Everybody at Real knows what Ronaldo is like and how the world must tilt on its axis for him. He is the strutting peacock who has to take the final penalty in the Champions League final - the glory shot - and who has the pathological need to stand out. It was noticeable how he turned at a 45-degree angle to the rest of his team during the Portugal anthem before their quarter-final penalty shoot-out victory over Poland on Thursday night.
Nobody would see Bale throwing the sort of tantrum that Ronaldo produced after his team conceded against Hungary in their final group tie but they are different characters. Bale has no problems with Ronaldo and he has tremendous professional respect for him. Ronaldo's record demands that. The power base at Real Madrid, though, appears to be shifting, with Bale now the burgeoning force. He is expected to be given a lucrative new contract at the club this summer and how Ronaldo feels about Bale is possibly the far more intriguing question.
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Two things are clear, as Wales gear up for another game that can legitimately be billed as the biggest of their history. Firstly, Bale will love the challenge of facing Ronaldo and the prospect of getting one over on him, even if he does not admit it in public. It appeals to both the competitor and the joker in him. But, secondly, nobody in the Wales camp, least of all Bale, sees this as him versus Ronaldo.
"I am sure it will be mentioned," Aaron Ramsey said, in one of the understatements of the tournament. "But Gareth will tell you himself it is not about that. It is about his team getting to the final. He will play that down."
Wales' success has been built on the collective; on unquenchable passion and desire. And on being well-drilled. Chris Coleman, the manager, deserves his share of the praise. Take his starburst corner routine, from which Ashley Williams, the captain, headed the equaliser against Belgium. A group of Wales players bunched together before running in different directions. It is difficult to mark against - the defenders can be a split-second behind - and it was something that had been honed on the training ground. Coleman's details have been decisive.
Wales turned it around after going 1-0 down to Belgium and being second best for the opening 25 minutes. They had worked hard at the outset. Now, they reached deeper. Belgium could not maintain their intensity and they were reeled in. When the cracks started to appear, Wales hammered through them. Sam Vokes, the substitute, became the sixth Wales player to score at these finals with his late header while Coleman has given minutes to 19 of his 23 players. A one-man team? Hardly. Ramsey's suspension, after the performance of his life, for collecting a second yellow card of the competition was a bitter pill. He talked of feeling "gutted" and how it might take time to sink in. Ben Davies, who has been convincing on the left of Coleman's three-man defence, is also banned. Wales will pull together. Jonny Williams or Andy King will come in for Ramsey, with James Collins to replace Davies.
"We have said to Aaron and Ben that we are going to do everything we can to get them to the final, and make sure that is not the last they see of this tournament," Neil Taylor, the left-back, said. "They have both been massive players. We are doing it for them." The emotions ran riot against Belgium, particularly at full-time. The players gathered in a huddle to listen to Ashley Williams and he simply led them in song. "It's probably not as interesting as you'd all like it to be," James Chester, the centre-half, said. "We sang the fans' song: 'We just don't want to go home', which was good fun."
The focus has turned towards Portugal and the admiration for one of their number is plain. Chester overlapped with Ronaldo at Manchester United, having graduated from the youth team, and he played alongside him in his one substitute appearance for the first-team - the Carling Cup semi-final, second-leg win over Derby County in 2009.
"I just remember what I took from him - how good a professional he was, how he looked after himself," Chester said. "I'm well aware of how fortunate I am to have come through that club at that time. Just to watch the likes of him and see how they behave has been massive for me throughout my career."
Wales' belief has risen inexorably and the message before Portugal is one of no fear. "We have always said it is about us and we are not lying when we say these things," Taylor said. "Portugal would have hoped to get us, and not Belgium. I think they might be looking at it a bit differently now." Vokes added: "We are in it to win it - that is our next goal. It sounds crazy but it is a genuine goal. We want to be there in that final."
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