Ken Early: Gareth Bale a leader for Wales in words and deeds
Real Madrid star stresses his country’s underdogs status as they take on England
Quite a few of the countries at Euro 2016 possess a superstar player whose talent and charisma means they tower above everyone else in the squad.
Poland have Robert Lewandowski, Austria David Alaba, Sweden have Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Ireland have Wes Hoolahan.
The most exaggerated cases, though, are in the national teams of the two mega-galacticos of Real Madrid: Portugal with Cristiano Ronaldo, and Wales with Gareth Bale.
The status gap between the superstar and the rest is greatest in Wales’ case. Look at one of their possible strike partnerships tomorrow: Gareth Bale (Real Madrid) and Hal Robson-Kanu (unattached).
Yet Bale somehow seems much closer to his team-mates than Ronaldo does.
Ronaldo gives the impression that international football is a source of much exasperation in his life. This is his seventh tournament with Portugal and it already looks like being the seventh disappointment.
Just before captaining Portugal at the 2014 World Cup he remarked: “If we had two or three Cristiano Ronaldos, I would feel more comfortable. But we don’t.”
You might wonder how the other Portugal players felt about that, but you suspect Ronaldo never has.
His former coach at Real Madrid, Carlo Ancelotti, describes him as a “technical leader” – a player who leads by example, who is a reference point for the other players because of his quality and professionalism.
“Such players are always very professional, someone for all the youngsters to aspire to be like,” Ancelotti says.
“The technical leader is the player who has the most knowledge on the pitch. They train hard, play hard, and behave correctly off the pitch, too.”
Personality leaderAncelotti usually would not ask this player to be his captain. Instead he looks for the “personality leader”, the player with the strongest character.
“He is always a talker in the team, speaking to his team-mates a lot, often shouting across the pitch, helping everyone out. He should be positive and fearless and he will always step forward when the occasion demands it.”
At Real Madrid this was Sergio Ramos, at Chelsea John Terry, and so on.
In the Portugal team the personality leaders are obviously Pepe and Ricardo Carvalho, but successive coaches have thought it wiser to give the armband to Cristiano in order not to provoke a sulk.
Tuesday night against Iceland was not one of Ronaldo’s finest hours of leadership. Because Portugal have no striker, his coach Fernando Santos asked him to play up front, which he did for just a few minutes before reverting to his favoured position on the wing. Someone else could handle the centre-forward problem.
He failed to score with any of his 10 shots, then he gave a silly post-match interview sarcastically criticising Iceland, comments that will have had some of his team-mates cringing. They were words that could only have come out of the mouth of someone who had no idea who or what Iceland actually was.
He suggested Iceland’s “small team mentality” was why they will not go far in the tournament. Ronaldo’s approach to captaincy is one of the reasons why Portugal won’t go too much further.
Contrast that with Bale, who is clearly another technical leader, yet one who has performed better for his country both on and off the field than his Madrid team-mate. Ashley Williams, who has only a fraction of Bale’s ability, wears the armband, yet it doesn’t affect the joy Bale takes in representing Wales.
Having scored that outlandish free-kick to help Wales beat Slovakia, Bale has spent the last few days winding up Roy Hodgson with a series of comments about Wales having more passion than England, and no English player being good enough to get in the Welsh team.
Bale grasps that mockery is appropriate in this case because Wales is a much smaller country than England. He’s punching up. If Wayne Rooney were to say the same sort of thing in reverse, it would be embarrassing.
Ultimate professionalWhat kind of a leader is Rooney? Alex Ferguson didn’t think he was any kind of one, but Roy Hodgson, who described him this week as “the ultimate professional”, seems to see him as one of those rare players, like Paolo Maldini or Roy Keane, who combines the technical and personality kinds of leadership. In the context of this young England team, Rooney is Hodgson’s nominee as personality leader whether he feels totally comfortable with it or not.
His job over the last couple of days will have been to rally his team-mates after the late equaliser they conceded to Russia.
The way Russia collapsed against the Slovaks who had already lost to Wales will not have done anything to improve England’s mood. Russia’s true mediocrity has been exposed and England can no longer feel quite so proud of dominating a match against such a poor side.
Rooney was praised for his performance in dictating the play at the Velodrome, but a couple of reservations should be noted. Notionally England’s playmaker, Rooney didn’t manage a single successful pass into Russia’s penalty area. Most of his passes went out wide, with Kyle Walker the usual target. He was efficient in carrying out that role, but it does mean that the direction of attacks becomes predictable.
Also Rooney was not as involved after half-time, when Russia detailed Aleksandr Kokorin to get tighter to him and deny him time. Wales will presumably be aware from the beginning of the need to invade Rooney’s personal space. The jackpot would be to provoke him into a reaction.