For the umpteenth time Gareth Bale fielded a Cristiano Ronaldo‑related question. Had he spoken to his Real Madrid team‑mate about Euro 2016 before they set off for the finals with Wales and Portugal respectively?
“No,” Bale replied. “I remember Toni Kroos saying we’d only have three games. So, it would be nice to meet him in the final. It was a good laugh and a joke – a bit of banter.”
Bale has had to put up with this sort of thing throughout his career from team‑mates like Kroos, the Germany midfielder, who not only expects to be involved at the major summer championships but to go far in them. Finally Bale is enjoying his moment. At their first tournament since the 1958 World Cup Wales have advanced, against the odds, to the semi-finals, where they face Portugal in Lyon on Wednesday night.
“I have had a lot of abuse over the years,” Bale said, with a smile. “When we used to lose and when we were 100th in the world – ‘You have nine weeks’ holiday, instead of two.’ Just the normal stuff. It is good to finally be in a major tournament, actually doing great things with our national team.”
The ribbing has not come from Ronaldo. Indeed, it sounded as though there was very little that crackled between the pair, whose confrontation has provided the principal subplot to the tie. The subtext to the subplot dominated Bale’s media conference on Monday and it shone a light on his much-discussed relationship with Ronaldo – or the lack of it.
Bale has professional respect for the Portugal captain, whom he described as “a tremendous player”. He added: “We get on very well at Madrid and enjoy playing together.”
But there was never even the slightest hint of warmth from Bale towards Ronaldo – like, for example, there was from him towards Kroos. Or towards Pepe, another Real team‑mate, who will line up for Portugal on Wednesday, fitness permitting. The centre-half has a thigh problem and sat out training on Monday as a precaution.
“First and foremost Pepe is a fantastic player,” Bale said of the 33-year-old. “He’s incredible for Madrid. He’s a very professional athlete and he’s a great man. He’s been very good with me.”
Bale shut down everything on Ronaldo, as he stuck to his line about their duel being “irrelevant” in the context of such an important game, involving 20 other starting players. Had he had any contact with Ronaldo during the tournament? “No, we haven’t,” Bale said.
Could he comment on their free-kick styles? “It is different – different feet, for a start,” he said. “He has his own style and I have mine. I don’t know what else to say.” Bale had nothing to say, either, about what Ronaldo did away from the field. “What he does off the pitch is his private life,” he said.
They are, patently, different characters and it seemed enlightening that, where Bale has previously been happy to call it on with England – to take a few tongue-in-cheek pot-shots at them before the group-stage fixture – he seemed aware that he had to draw a line with Ronaldo.
Real’s is a political and often cliquey dressing room, in which Ronaldo has the biggest ego. It is a sore point to him, for example, that Bale’s transfer fee was a world record, eclipsing that which the club paid for him in 2009. Bale knows what Ronaldo is like. He does not want to make any waves.
The contrast in mood between Bale and Ronaldo at these finals has been instructive. Bale has assumed the responsibility for being a figurehead in the media. He is aware of his profile, of how the press invariably want to talk to him and he has agreed to the requests – in part, to take the pressure off his team‑mates.
Ronaldo has done very little media work and he threw a reporter’s microphone into a lake before Portugal’s final group tie against Hungary. “I am sure he has his reasons for doing what he did,” Bale said.
Ronaldo has sometimes looked tense whereas Bale has been supremely relaxed. There is no sense that Bale is feeling the pressure – possibly because of Wales’s underdog status or because he is plainly having a great time with people who are more than just team-mates to him.
He described the Wales squad as being like brothers. The bond between them has been evident and, when Bale talks, for example, about not being bothered by the Ballon d’Or, one believes him.
Nothing has changed in the Wales camp since the 3-1 victory against Belgium in the quarter-finals and Bale offered an insight into a happy camp, which feels untouched by the frenzy outside it, particularly back at home. The pre-dinner quizzes continue and Bale reported that his team had won again in the latest one.
“That’s six in a row now,” he said. “We’re on fire. It was pictures of Premier League players that were blurred out and you had to guess who they were. The atmosphere’s exactly the same. We’re still joking around and having a laugh. We’re not feeling the pressure. There’s no fear in the group and the manager is keeping everything cool. It’s a great journey to be on.”
Bale admitted that he and the squad were in a “bubble” although there have been down-days after matches, in which they have been able to spend time with their families, which was restorative. The manager, Chris Coleman, has found the right balance.
Selflessness has been one of the watchwords, which has been epitomised by those who have not played the number of minutes that they might have liked. The squad players have kept their spirits up, and those around them, while Bale also offered a snapshot in the virtue.
He did not train with the group on Monday, as he felt slightly stiff but was quick to give reassurances that it was nothing out of the ordinary – and he has worked with his own physiotherapist, having brought Jaime Benito with him from Real. He did not want to overburden Wales’s existing medical staff.
What has shone through is a slightly surreal feeling – of a group of people on the adventure of their lives and enjoying every second. “In a way it doesn’t feel like we’re in the semi-final and maybe that’s working in our favour,” Bale said. “We’re just doing what we’ve always done. We’re not changing what isn’t broke.”
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