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Jones: Wales left heartbroken

 By Chris Jones

Focused Bale ignores talk of Ronaldo ahead of Wales' biggest game

PARIS -- Two days before the biggest international game of Gareth Bale's life, a little more than 54 hours before the first major semifinal in Welsh history, he took to the stage Monday in front of a room filled with reporters and looked as relaxed as that kid who always sat in the last row in class. Question after question came his way, and he never bristled, never wavered, never showed a flicker of any emotion other than contentment. He didn't come close to throwing a microphone in a lake.

The man who recently did, Cristiano Ronaldo -- Bale's teammate at Real Madrid and his principal opponent on Wednesday when Wales play Portugal -- was the subject of much of the conversation. Bale was asked what he thought of Ronaldo, the player and the person. ("Of course we get on very well. We enjoy playing with each other.") He was asked whether he had spoken or texted with Ronaldo during the tournament. ("No, we haven't. No.") He was asked why Ronaldo has seemed so on edge during Euro, on the brink of spontaneous combustion. ("I'm not too sure. I can't comment on how he's feeling. For me, I feel comfortable.")

He was asked...

"It's not about two players," Bale said. "It's about two nations in a semifinal, 11 men against 11 men. It's going to be a very difficult game. They're in the semifinal for a reason. We're just going to try to enjoy the occasion as we always have."

And he was asked...

"Of course he's a fantastic player. Everybody knows what he can do. But we've always spoken about what we do, what we do ourselves as a team. We don't worry about the opposition. For us, it's about the team."

And then he was asked...

"The team is the star for us. There's no stars on our team. We're all together, we all work as one. We all run for each other, tackle for each other, fight for each other. We're just a very close team. We all get along like brothers. We're here having fun. We have no fear. It's working so far."

And he was asked again in a slightly different way...

"I never think about the Ballon d'Or. It's not in my mind at all. The most important thing for me is to win with my team."

Teammates for the past three seasons at Real Madrid, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo will oppose each other on Wednesday.

Again and again, Ronaldo surfaced like sweat, and again and again, Bale sat back with his hands folded in front of him and said the same good and logical things he has always said. It's been remarkable to watch Bale and this Welsh team, playing above their heads in some ways and yet never losing them. Bale especially is either one of the world's great actors or almost completely immune to anxiety. He should be studied someday to see if he has some built-in resistance to pressure that the rest of us might take as a pill.

The only time he betrayed any negative emotion was when he was asked about the looming absence of Aaron Ramsey and Ben Davies, critical starters who will miss the semifinal because of accumulated yellow cards. Even in his sadness, however, Bale managed to find the positive.

"It's horrible," he said. "It's when the rules are difficult to take sometimes. You feel for them, of course, and of course they're going to be hurt deep down. But they're not showing it. They're really getting behind the team. I suppose it's giving us even more motivation now, for us to win the semifinal for them to play again in the tournament in the final. We're not doing it just for the nation and the badge. We're doing it for them as well."

Bale, having lived in the spotlight for so long, is well practised at football's sometimes strange politics. He has minders who are careful to maintain his everyman image, the ordinary superstar walking in our midst. (One writer who visited Bale at his home was later scolded for making his back garden sound too lavish in his descriptions.)

But he also seems genuinely unconcerned with the little games that surround the big ones. He appears as unaffected as anyone in his position might be, just a little Welsh boy who grew up to become extraordinarily good at this one simple, beautiful thing.

"The biggest honor you can have is to play for your country," he said. "To be a part of history now for our country, to play in the biggest game our country has ever been involved in, is an amazing achievement in itself. But we think it's our time. We don't want it to end here. We want to continue the journey, continue to keep fighting, and hopefully we can make more history."

Maybe the real gift of Gareth Bale is his refusal to make it with anything but his feet.

Chris Jones is a writer for ESPN FC. He's on Twitter @EnswellJones.


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