What Now for Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo After Remarkable Night in Kiev?

Alex Dunn@@aldunn80Featured ColumnistMay 28, 2018

Gareth Bale enjoyed the night of his life, before casting his future into real doubt, as did Cristiano Ronaldo.
Gareth Bale enjoyed the night of his life, before casting his future into real doubt, as did Cristiano Ronaldo.David Ramos/Getty Images

Prior to the Mexico Olympics of 1968, the conventional way for a high-jumper to clear the bar was with the body facing it, via a straddling technique named the Western Roll. It was effectively a glorified hop.

American athlete Dick Fosbury arrived in Mexico City for the Games as a relative unknown. By the end of it, he had revolutionised the high jump.

In the final round with the bar set at a world-record height of 2.24 meters (7'4¼"), instead of turning his body toward it after his run-up, he employed a back-first manoeuvre. Drawing his legs up and flipping over backwards, he cleared the bar to win the gold medal. The "Fosbury Flop" was born, and it has been adopted by pretty much all jumpers since.

And Gareth Bale.

Given the proximity of Zinedine Zidane and Cristiano Ronaldo on Saturday evening to perhaps the greatest goal ever scored in the UEFA Champions League, never mind a final, it would be disingenuous to suggest Bale's first strike in Real Madrid's 3-1 victory over Liverpool needs its own moniker.

His manager did something similarly special for Madrid in the 2002 European Cup final at Hampden Park; while his team-mate replicated his bicycle brilliance earlier in the season against Juventus at the quarter-final stage. Ranking them is like being asked to pick a favourite child.

Yet in terms of its technique and also in its inception, parallels can be drawn between Bale and Fosbury.

Both acts required gigantic leaps of faith—figuratively and literally. Both induced silence, then involuntary laughter, concluded by a roar of approval. Both were triumphs of the imagination. Both were instances of individual genius that had spectators trying to claw back time, as if what they had just witnessed was too improbable to be true. Both had supporters looking to their feet for their jaws, as if searching for a missing programme. 

It was that kind of night in Kiev, Ukraine.

Bale had been on the pitch for just 122 seconds when he made up his mind to try something extraordinary. Made up his mind; let that sink in. He was likely still a little nervousprobably angry toohaving spent the preceding hour silently simmering as a substitute before being introduced for the ineffective Isco. When Madrid's other subs came to the touchline to warm up earlier in the game, Bale was not among them: an island.

As a microcosm of Bale's time in Spain, Saturday night was almost the perfect case study: frustration and fantasy.

It was the type of goal that, in years to come, will move the next generation of sports writers to pen essays about it. An immediate classic, it will outlive us all to become a staple of every greatest goal list compiled from hereon in.

Fifty years from now scientists will still be fielding calls to explain the aerodynamics of Bale hanging in the air as though time itself was suspended, to allow his left boot to meet Marcelo's cross with a violent, beautiful purchase.

Given the once-in-a-lifetime difficulty of the manoeuvre, that the Brazilian's delivery took a deflection to make Bale's task even harder, only amplified the magnitude of what he had done.

It was a little like asking Mozart to come up with a new symphony using a kids' plastic keyboard, or challenging Leonardo da Vinci to recreate "The Last Supper" using an Etch a Sketch.

"You have no right," said Frank Lampard in the BT Sports studio, as if momentarily affronted. Rio Ferdinand plumped for "criminal" as his adjective of choice, while the normally unflappable anchor Gary Lineker seemed genuinely flummoxed.

Mouths agog and arms flapping expressively, it was endearing to see those who really have seen it all act as if they had witnessed something new.

With each replay Steven Gerrard looked as if he was falling further and further into Dante's Circles of Hell. Gary Neville was on the door of the ninth wearing devil horns, while watching a replay of the 1999 European Cup final on his phone. 

Real Madrid's third consecutive European Cup win, secured courtesy of a win over Liverpool that was at once odd and remarkable, and all points in between, matches the great Bayern Munich and Ajax sides of the 1970s. And of course, the Real Madrid of Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas. 

It is a victory, a remarkable fourth in five seasons, a 13th in total (more than any other two clubs combined), which will spark manifold debates over where Zidane's side ranks among the pantheon of greats.

Darko Vojinovic/Associated Press

At least it will, in time. For on the night, the post-match interviews proved to be as breathless as the action that preceded them. While still in their shorts, both Bale and Ronaldo intimated this could be their parting gift to Real Madrid.

Thereafter, the camera trained its sight on individuals rather than the Madrid collective who passed around a trophy that by now must be more familiar to them than the family silver. An unashamed voyeur, it lingered on Bale after the Welshman flashed more than a hint of leg at potential Premier League suitors, before a not-to-be-outdone Ronaldo did the Full Monty.

By the time Zidane was facing the written press, it was as if Europe's most dominant club was held together by Sellotape. The Frenchman must have felt he was dealing with the hangover before the party had taken place. Real Madrid is an institution nothing if not political, with the manager forced to play the spin doctor with his immaculate suit still damp with champagne.

In what promises to be a complicated summer for Madrid, what happens with Ronaldo could influence where Bale sees himself playing next season.

An exit for the Portuguese could free up the place Bale covets, though, according to The Independent's Miguel Delaney, the Wales international is now more inclined to move to Manchester United if a deal can be done with his long-time admirers.

However, even United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward might balk at £600,000 per week for a 28-year-old with a not-insignificant history of injuries. Mangaer Jose Mourinho would be positively giddy at the prospect of utilising Bale's height when defending set pieces.

Given Bale had just scored a match-winning brace off the bench to win a fourth European Cup with Real Madrid, in the process becoming the most decorated Brit in the competition's history, when BT's pitchside reporter Des Kelly, perfectly legitimately, asked him about his uncertain future, it was hard not to recall a famous anecdote George Best used to tell. On walking into Best's hotel room to deliver him some more champagne, a night porter found the Northern Irishman lying on a cash-strewn bed alongside a scantily clad Miss World. He asked: "So George, where did it all go wrong?"

Throughout his time in Spain, Bale has so often employed a straight bat to enquiries about his future, journalists posing the question have long since felt he would bow out with his bails still in tact. It was with no little surprise then that in victory he would be so candid, when quizzed on a potential return to the Premier League.

Seemingly emboldened by his goals, he told BT Sport:

"Obviously I was very disappointed not to start the game, I felt I deserved it but the manager makes the decisions.

"I need to be playing week in, week out, and that has not happened this season.

"I had an injury five, six weeks in but fit ever since. I have to sit down with my agent in the summer and discuss it."

Even when the adrenalin will have been tempered a notch when he later appeared in a post-match press conference, via ESPN, Bale was no more circumspect.

"I feel that I need to be playing every week," he repeated. "It's something that I've always wanted to do, something that I feel like I should be doing. If it's not the case here, then it's something I have to really consider and sit down and do.

"I'll do that in the summer. I have plenty of time now to relax, to reflect on things and see where things go."

Bale may be the most expensive player in Madrid's history, but he will not have expected to start. He made the first XI just once this season in the knockout stages of the Champions League. Even then, in the second leg of Madrid's quarter-final with Juventus, he was hooked at half-time at the Santiago Bernabeu with his team 2-0 down. Zidane has preferred to utilise him as a high impact, explosive option off the substitutes' bench.

For a player who would almost certainly make the starting XI of any other side in world football, playing 99 of 540 minutes of knockout football is not a sustainable situation. At £90 million, he seems as much a luxury as cashmere toilet paper.

Even withstanding the fact he went into the game with five goals from as many matches, that Karim Benzemagiven the nod over the Welshmanscored the game's opening goal after capitalising on Loris Karius' calamitous throw, and then Bale's own contribution, it was hard to argue with Zidane's logic.

"[Bale's] situation is a bit more complicated," was Zidane's summary of the situation, per the Daily Express. "Everyone has their own interests and future to think about.

"This is a squad and nothing will change."

Reading between the lines, it's probably safe to assume Zidane and Bale won't remain penpals if the latter departs over the summer.

Zidane hasn't done too badly for someone who apparently doesn't do tactics. Winning three Champions Leagues from as many attempts, a first, Zidane has one more than any of Sir Alex Ferguson, Pep Guardiola and Mourinho. He has done it despite being a senior coach for little over two years.

Three is as many as any coach ever, matching Bob Paisley and Carlo Ancelotti. To a man, the trio have proved quiet, calm authority is sometimes the best way to coax the best out of gargantuan egos squeezed into a single dressing room.

Some might argue his unrivalled winning philosophy, often derided as intangible to the point of being chaotic, is almost as impressive as ones of the pressing, counter-pressing or possession variety so swooned over elsewhere. To many, however, despite all the evidence to the contrary, he will forever be exceedingly lucky and unfeasibly successful.

Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp was not speaking in jest when he had said before the game that Madrid's bench would be good enough to qualify for the Champions League.

Indeed, it's arguable the distance the Reds still have left to run is best illuminated less by those who started than those who didn't. When Mohamed Salah fell victim to sport's cruellest fickle finger of fate, or Sergio Ramos' pitch-black dark arts, depending on your perspective, Klopp's options to replace the in-tears Egyptian were, to put it kindly, limited.

Having plumped for the still-not-quite-match-ready Adam Lallana over the raw to the point of being practically blue Dominic Solanke, the German would not be human had he not cast an envious glance over at Zidane when his Real counterpart was ruminating on which of Bale, Marco Asensio, or Mateo Kovacic would be the line of best fit when it became clear Isco had run his race.

In the buildup to Bale's acrobatic volley, Madrid made 20 passes, one fewer than James Milner managed in his 82 minutes before being substituted.

Prior to Salah's injury, Milner, alongside fellow midfield comrades Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum, hadas Toni Kroos predictedtorn into Madrid's players as if "animals." For half an hour, it was as if those in white were being made to wear a string of sausages around their waists while in the company of baying dogs.

When Salah went off, Liverpool were to all intents and purposes neutered. The "big balls" football Klopp had demanded, and received, in the opening third of the game was no more. It was as if they were playing with a slow puncture. 

Other than when Sadio Mane briefly restored parity to cancel out Karius' aberration for Benzema's opener, Liverpool for large periods chased shadows. To even get close to the immaculate Luka Modric and Kroos was akin to trying to catch butterflies with shark nets. With his straight back promptings from deep, the Germany international could get away without washing his kit from one season to the next.

While Zidane is happy to work in the shadows, Ronaldo has made it his life's work to cast all others under his. If on the pitch he was outshone by Bale's half-hour cameo, off it there was no such intention to occupy the shade.

To think people were concerned about Karius being haunted by what transpired in Kiev, what about Ronaldo?

"It's been very nice to be at Madrid," he told BeIN Sport and Antena 3 reporters (via the Mirror), pointedly using the past tense. "In the coming days I will give a response to the fans because they actually have always been at my side." 

When pushed on whether he was disappointed not to score in the final, with Bale stealing the headlines, Ronaldo added: "Who? Maybe the Champions League should change its name to the CR7 Champions League.

"Who has more champions and more goals?"

My two-year-old son does something similar. When he feels the limelight is being taken by his baby sister, he falls prostrate before turning to look up at the heavens to bellow: "What about me?" 

It is true an unrivalled, obsessive compulsion to be the best has propelled him to be just that. But when that spills over into chronic episodes of self-absorption, as seemed to be the case in Kiev, why such behaviour is celebratedor even indulgedseems a sad reflection of preening times. In his defence, sympathies offered to Salah appeared genuinely heartfelt.                            

Ronaldo could perhaps point to his five Champions League winners' medals, 120 goals in the competition, 450 strikes for Real Madrid, along with five Ballon d'Ors, and cite the writer George Bernard Shaw's view of what constitutes reasonableness by way of defence. 

Shaw wrote: "The reasonable man adopts himself to the world. The unreasonable man adopts the world to himself. All progress depends on the unreasonable man."

Unreasonable or otherwise, whether Ronaldo or Bale see such personal progress being possible at Real Madrid is now very much open to interpretation. 

Neither will have a quiet summer finding out.

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