Cristiano Ronaldo versus Gareth Bale, CR7 against Team GB, top dog against top-knot. In the days leading up to Portugal against Wales an outsider might be forgiven the assumption that what they are about to witness is at best a game of two-man three-and-in, at worst some kind of celebrity cage fight. King Meringue versus the Welsh Prince, with a supporting cast to pass the towels and hold the spit bucket.
There has been something of the boxing match buildup in Lyon, with a focus on the mano-a-mano aspects and attempts to goad both teams’ superstar captains into a little pre-game trash talking. It is a familiar Big Football paradox. The obsession with star names is ever more intense, even at a time when the sport itself is increasingly a collective, team-based affair.
With this in mind, perhaps the best part of an intriguing semi-final is not Bale-Ronaldo but the fact that beyond the fawning headlines both Wales and Portugal have been carried here by a genuine collective effort. Not just in the obvious numbers: in their past six games combined Portugal and Wales have scored 12 goals, three of these from Bale and Ronaldo. But also in terms of how these teams work, what their real shared strengths have been. Never mind the stars. Let’s hear it for The Other Guys.
It is not a fallacy to suggest Wales have been driven on to this stage by Bale. But the way this works has been quite nuanced. Bale was just one part of the machine against Belgium and a brief but decisive cutting edge against Northern Ireland where he was otherwise smothered. Beyond his obvious edge, he has been a point of disorientating gravity. Northern Ireland tired themselves hurling two or three players in his direction whenever he got the ball. Belgium were undone by a collective act of will from the Wales team, Bale playing his part often in deeper positions, from there producing a fine pass in the lead up to Hal Robson-Kanu’s goal of the tournament.
“You can’t manufacture or pretend, you’re either a team player or you’re not,” Chris Coleman said on the eve of the game. “You’re either like that or you’re not. Balo is exactly like that.”
In the event Wales’s outstanding individual in the knockout stages has been Aaron Ramsey, who was irrepressible against Belgium, all driving runs, cute passes and harrying defence. Beyond this Ashley Williams has regained his muscular sense of calm, the wing-backs have been spiky, Joe Ledley has put his shoulder to the wheel. Wales have been in their own way a model of the superstar-plus-10 dynamic, with no sense of separation, Bale’s disorientating presence still a feature of the team’s threat even in those moments when he is simply ticking over.
Even Ramsey’s forward runs, often untracked against Belgium, owe something to the attention Bale has been given. Andy King, a likely replacement in Lyon as Ramsey serves his suspension, will get similar blindside opportunities in the absence of the chuggingly effective William Carvalho. Danilo is a talented replacement but if Portugal persist with just the one deep central midfielder there will be space to run into.
So much for Wales as Bale. For all the excitable stylings this is some way off a one-man Hulk-smash-type scenario. The same goes for Ronaldo, albeit for a different reason. There is another slight fallacy here. Such are the differences in bearing and manner between the two the temptation will be there to suggest that if Bale works as an embedded superstar Ronaldo must be the opposite, a more pampered figurehead, borne aloft on his litter by 10 fawning team-mates like some tinpot emperor.
And yet it is incorrect to suggest Ronaldo is not a team player, is in some way a vainglorious athlete. His team-mates, past and present, give a different story. As Coleman pointed out in Lyon: “Talent is a huge distraction to people. I constantly have conversations with players who say they played up to a certain level and were brilliantly talented. But if you look a bit deeper he was missing something: attitude, mentality. With all his talent, Cristiano has that mentality. Same with our boy.”
Ronaldo does demand Portugal play through him, does shoot constantly, does posture and howl on the pitch. But his logic is simple: he offers the best chance of victory. Unlike Bale, who roves more, he is the lone pump-action shotgun at the head of this team. History suggests if you give him the ball you tend to score
He does lead too. Footage of Ronaldo urging João Moutinho on to take a penalty against Poland has been dismissed by some as a stage-managed moment of look-at-me leadership, but this is to miss the point. Of course, Ronaldo knew the cameras were watching. Football is an utterly public spectacle. Celebrations, communication, geeing up of the crowd, it all happens in the round.
And yet, Ronaldo has not led in the obvious way. He has not carried his team to this semi-final. If anything The Other Guys have carried him, as good teams will carry one another. Portugal’s midfield has been a prodigious hive of energy, their tackle stats through the roof. Pepe has been disciplined and alert, with no sign yet of Bad Pepe in the clinches. The idea Nani would one day lead a team to a tournament semi-final playing as a straight centre-forward might have drawn a snort or two at the end of his time at Old Trafford. And yet here he is anyway, like Ricardo Quaresma, cashing in a slightly unspent grand attacking talent.
Best of all has been Renato Sanches, Portugal’s own Ramsey, the star behind the star. Against Poland Sanches flexed his shoulders and showed the world exactly what Bayern Munich have bought, taking 98 touches, completing 93% of his passes, setting off on seven dribbles and above all carrying the game back to Poland when Portugal had gone behind, an utterly fearless presence on the ball.
In front of this Ronaldo has rarely stopped running, for all his fractious, occasional very funny and camp body language. But he has also been horrible at times. There is a lurking suspicion Ronaldo is due, that someone will, in Roy Hodgson’s words, be “made to pay” for all those shanks and air shots, the late missed penalty. Two excellent finishes against Hungry have been accompanied by an astonishing 35 shots on goal, 23 from outside the box, eight of them on target. It is hard to know what is more remarkable here, Ronaldo’s wastefulness or his capacity to refuse to hide and simply keep on going.
Either way, a genuine Bale-Ronaldo toe-to-toe seems an unlikely prospect. The great duels have often failed to materialise down the years, from Bobby Charlton against Franz Beckenbauer 50 years ago, to Zico and Michel Platini at Mexico 86 to Ronaldo and – say – Andrés Iniesta at the same stage four years ago. As ever, the real strengths of successful teams tend to lie not in outsize individuals but in the spirit and craft that allow those parts to shine. Not least for a pair of semi-finalists whose shared qualities have been allowed to thrive just a little out of sight beneath the starry veneer.
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