Cristiano Ronaldo is a selfish attention hog, just out to get his, score his goals and take his shirt off so people can focus on him, even when he’s playing for his country. It’s all he wants.
Gareth Bale plays for a plucky underdog team, with Wales in their first major tournament in nearly 60 years, and the superstar’s incredible leadership and game-changing ability is what has made this possible.
Those are the narratives. They’re well-established, from the decade-long fascination with Ronaldo the celebrity vs. Ronaldo the soccer players, to the belief that it takes incredible spirit for a small team like Wales to succeed. That Ronaldo and Bale, Real Madrid reammates, happen to meet in the Euro semifinals just makes it that much easier to push those ideas. They’re so ingrained in the sport that when they clash, lean on them and watch them go.
The problem is those narratives, at the very least when it comes to this match and these teams, are piles of garbage.
Portugal and Wales are stunningly similar, and so are the roles that their stars play for their teams. This isn’t a matter of competing narratives, systems or even beliefs. It’s two teams that are generally built the same way, with an extreme reliance on their respective stars. And one of them is going to play for a European championship.
Neither Portugal nor Wales would be here if not for their stars. It could be argued that no other teams at the Euros lean on their best players as much as Portugal leans on Ronaldo and Wales leans on Bale. They’re the reason both teams are here.
Had it not been for Ronaldo and his spectacular performance in the group stage finale against Hungary, Portugal wouldn’t have made the knockout stages. He single-handedly saved them spearheading their attack, as he often does.
All the while, Wales went from the best defensive team in Euro qualifying to one just as onerous in France. And when it comes time to score a goal, they look to Bale. He did it with three tallies in the group stage and in the round of 16, it was Bale to the rescue again, shredding the Northern Ireland defense and hitting the dangerous cross that a defender turned into his own net for the match’s only goal.
Portugal and Wales defend, and when they need a goal they hope their stars will be there. Occasionally they get help from teammates, like Nani and Renato Sanches or Aaron Ramsey and Hal Robson-Kanu, but it’s generally a well-worked team at one end and a star at the other end.
Ronaldo and Bale are part of that defensive team too. Neither is exempted from putting in the defensive work, pressing, chasing 50/50 balls or marking men on set pieces. That they can do that is why their teams defend as well as they do, and that they have the athleticism, fitness and mental ability to carry that responsibility along with the attack of a whole country is what makes them the magnificent superstars that they are.
They are also the unquestioned leaders of their teams. Ronaldo is Portugal’s captain and his team, especially the magnificent but young midfield, looks to him for leadership. When he eggs them on, they push harder, and when they got tight against Croatia, he gathered them and insisted they calm down and continue to do what they had been doing — defend and chase. All the while, Bale can be seen telling his striker where to go and which runners his teammates need to pick up on his wing.
There is no doubt that Portugal are the more impressive team on paper, but not by the margins some would like you to believe. They’re not the powerhouse that has been overtaken by Ronaldo, who needs attention at all costs, even the chances of his team. And Wales aren’t some team of nobodies, being dragged along by a star and spirit. They’re both exceedingly organized teams, who know exactly what they’re doing and how to execute their game plans. Game plans their stars buy into, and which include the provision for their stars to win them matches.
Ronaldo does like to be in the spotlight and his propensity for shooting is only matched by his aversion to shirts. Bale is a less glamorous player from a much less glamorous country. But when it comes to their national teams, there isn’t much to separate them at these Euros.
It’s no surprise that the semifinal has been billed as a Ronaldo vs. Bale match-up, and that narrative is exceedingly compelling. But it’s because they are both gigantic superstars and leaders of teams that work for them, and they for their teams. Not because of how easy it is to push an old narrative that, with these national teams and these tournaments, doesn’t hold up at all.