Battle of Bale versus Ronaldo not distracting Welsh boss
When it was put to Wales manager Chris Coleman yesterday that the play-within-a-play created by his nation's European Championships semi-final - Gareth Bale versus Cristiano Ronaldo - threatens to distract from the task in hand, he replied that he couldn't care less.
"If we let outsiders make us feel in a certain way that's our problem. It's about how you feel in yourself. The result will be what it will be…" Coleman said, in another hugely impressive pre-match discussion which demonstrated why he motivates his players so much.
Perhaps it's easier to feel that way when your man is the one in the ascendancy. Though there is a near perfect symmetry about the confrontation between this Real Madrid pair, who have played a monumental part in driving their nations to Lyon on Wednesday night, Bale looks like the ascendant figure.
His three goals in the tournament have been accompanied by a role in getting the little nation heard. It's become something of a ritual that Bale sits down to speak at the Welsh base on the Brittany coast and that is likely to be the case again on this afternoon. His candour and willingness to lob a few grenades has belied his reputation as the quiet man - beta to Ronaldo's alpha.
It's been a very different story for the man five years his senior. Ronaldo, unlike Bale, is his country's captain yet he has not once appeared at a press conference through a tournament in which Portugal are yet to win a game in normal time. Manager Fernando Santos is trying to protect him against an unyielding spotlight.
But what makes the challenge all the harder is the respective relationships between these two protagonists and the people of their nations. While Bale is a Welsh national hero, cemented in his nation's sporting history for all time, Ronaldo has never been a prophet in his own land and national sentiment towards him during this tournament has been as mixed as ever.
Bale's far greater popularity is born of the fact that berating players who are his inferiors does not enter the equation for Bale. His fame and stardust have not ruined him, Coleman observed yesterday.
"He (Bale) could have that mentality. 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," the manager said. "They automatically want to gravitate that way to where he is," he added, gesturing to the ceiling. "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. It's up to all of us to try and get up there where he is as much as we can. And because he doesn't demand that, it's helpful. It's helpful for the group. It's helpful for the team spirit. That's for sure."
Coleman discussed the how the "friendship" between Bale and Ronaldo would have to wait until Wednesday night is over, though the distinct sense that no such warmth exists increases the fascination.
When Rafael Benitez arrived as manager at the Bernabeu, he found Bale knocking on his door to say he was finding his role on the flank an isolating one - not least as Ronaldo expected the clique of players who looked up to him, such as James Rodriguez and Marcelo Vieira, to pass to him. "Centro, centro," Ronaldo would instruct them, according to Benitez. The Spaniard liked Bale and the seriousness of his approach to football and began deploying him more centrally. "Why are you putting him there?" Ronaldo then demanded. "He's standing on my space."
Bale will certainly fight his corner, too. Carlo Ancelotti's recent book, 'Quiet Leadership' revealed that Bale's agent Jonathan Barnett had made representations to president Florentino Perez about getting his client's position on the field changed.
What unites these two remarkable sportsmen is an unremitting commitment to their nation. Observers in Portugal believe that Ronaldo will never retire from the Portuguese set-up as Lionel Messi has form Argentina. "He has an obsession with being remembered as the greatest player in football history," said Jorge Silva. "Maradona and Pele both won tournaments with their countries and he thinks he might not be remembered as better than them if doesn't do that too. He will only leave the team when someone taps on his shoulder and says: 'It's time to go." Bale would empathise with that.