Real Madrid teammates celebrate after winning the Champions League title. Photograph:( Reuters )
Great players thrill us and enthrall us. They do so with their skills, talents and, at times, audacity. The best, however, do a little more. They remind us, even in finals, that football ultimately remains a game, to be played and to be enjoyed, to be watched and to be admired. With a delightful bicycle kick, Gareth Bale lit up the European Cup final.
The final had promised attacking intent, slack defending, and goals, plenty of goals. This was to be a romantic, high-octane, old-fashioned showpiece match. This was going to be Cristiano Ronaldo, the sculpted super athlete, versus Mohamed Salah, a talismanic next-better. They were to be protagonists in a grand-scale gala night in the Ukrainian capital, but, alas, Sergio Ramos and his dark arts curtailed Salah’s final, and Cristiano Ronaldo, for once, was truly peripheral in the plenitude of the word: he didn’t score.
So, it was left to Gareth Bale to enchant. The Welshman proved to be a super sub for Real Madrid, replacing Isco. He scored the goal that won Madrid a third consecutive European Cup in superlative style. For a moment, the rippling of the net filled the stadium with silence, then there was applause. In celebration, Bale threw himself, sliding face-down, to the ground, but he seemed among the few to have realised what had just happened.
Liverpool’s end was stunned. The entire stadium was stunned. On the touchline, even Zinedine Zidane was in disbelief. Bale had just scored a goal that bears watching again, and again. He took flight and in the Kiev sky he conjured up a marvellous bicycle kick, a gracious demonstration of split-second improvisation, excellent timing and superb athleticism. This time Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius, whose final was a horror show, had no chance.
The goal was not only splendid, but almost with the cockiness that emanates from this all-conquering Real Madrid team. Zidane applauded Bale’s strike. Ronaldo seemed nonplussed. He had scored an astounding overhead kick of his own in the quarter-finals against Juventus. And so the French coach, remembering his sumptuous volley against Bayer Leverkussen in the 2002 Champions League final, and the Portuguese superstar might well have had a word with the Welsh winger.